Arson Awareness Week

Vehicle arson motivations and prevention tips

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Tips to prevent vehicle arson

  • Park your car in a well-lit area.

  • Use a secure parking lot for extended periods.

  • Close all windows.

  • Remove the key from the ignition.

  • Always lock doors, trunk and tailgate.

  • Use antitheft devices.

  • Report abandoned cars to the police.

  • Don’t leave valuables in plain sight.

  • Use a recovery system, such as GPS or Lojack.

Motivations behind vehicle arson

The motivations behind the burning of vehicles are similar to those of other types of arson crimes.

The most common motive: revenge

According to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the most common motive (41 percent) for a serial arsonist is revenge. An arsonist will target the home of someone in retaliation for an actual or perceived injustice against him or her. A car is viewed as an extension of the individual and is a very personal target for revenge arson.

Other common motives for vehicle arson include:

Concealing another crime

Arson is sometimes used to mask or conceal another crime, such as murder. The criminal sets the crime scene ablaze, hoping that the victim’s death will be attributed to the fire and not murder. Other crimes, such as burglary and larceny, are also commonly covered up by an arson fire.


Curiosity fires are most often set by juveniles. The misuse of fire has many variables, including age, motivation for firesetting behavior, type of fires set, ignition materials used to set the fires, and the child’s understanding of the limitations of fire. Firesetting behavior is often a symptom of the problem and may be caused by stress and crisis in children’s lives. There can be a thrill from seeing a car in flames. ”Youth firesetting“ was the focus for the 2012 Arson Awareness Week.


Most excitement fires are often nuisance fires but may escalate to vehicles. Excitement-motivated arsonists desire the thrill associated with setting the fire and relish the attention it brings. They rarely intend to injure people but don’t have the requisite knowledge to keep the fires under control. A car is an easy target, and with little effort and risk, it can create an impressive fire.

Insurance fraud/Arson for profit

Arson for profit is insurance fraud, a criminal method of obtaining money from the insurance policy. People purchase cars that they can’t afford and get behind in the payments. A lease was attractive at first, until they realize that the additional miles racked up will result in hefty financial penalties. Nowadays, with a combination of the economy and increasing fuel prices, setting the car on fire is seen as a quick and victimless escape. “Arson for profit” was the theme for the 2009 Arson Awareness Week.

Vehicle arson: the insurer's perspective

Setting unwanted vehicles on fire for insurance payouts ranks among the most common automobile insurance crimes year after year. Expensive, gas-guzzling SUVs are especially popular vehicles to try and unload. Typically, the drivers have fallen on hard times. They view insurance arson as the ticket to escaping high monthly payments and gas prices that they can’t afford.

Insurance companies are skilled at detecting these crimes and the drivers’ greedy motives. “Burning your vehicle raises premiums for honest drivers everywhere but insurance cheaters are the ones who’ll get burned the most. They’ll be stuck with a criminal record that follows them for the rest of their lives,” says Dennis Jay, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.


Vandalism or the criminal offense of malicious mischief can be the result of boredom, peer pressure or even gang activity. Vehicles parked in a lot or a great distance from a residence and seemingly abandoned automobiles are attractive targets for trouble-making activities.

Motivations from real-life cases

A friend in need

A middle school guidance counselor from North Plainfield, New Jersey, pleaded guilty to third-degree arson and third-degree insurance fraud for setting fire to his BMW 525I at a park after reporting that it was stolen that morning to police. Six days later, he devised a similar plan to burn his friend’s Acura TL; the lease was coming to an end, but he was facing high mileage penalties. The friend reported his car stolen, and it was found burning late that night in a high school parking lot. For a reduced sentence, the guidance counselor agreed to testify against his now ex-friend. Both received a year in jail and are banned from public service.

Masking a murder

A man from Rosedale, Maryland, was convicted of second-degree murder. He stabbed his victim to death and then placed the man in a car before setting fire to the vehicle. The man’s body was burned beyond recognition.

No reason given

A Shrewsbury Township, Pennsylvania, man pleaded guilty to setting 13 cars on fire over a 14-month period. When asked, ”Why did you do it?“ by the judge, he responded, ”I really don’t have a reason, I wasn’t thinking about the consequences.“ The man accepted multiple guilty pleas to arson, criminal conspiracy and criminal mischief, receiving a 2 1/2- to 5-year sentence in county prison, where he’ll be afforded outmate work release and begin paying restitution for the burned vehicles.

I had a bad day

A young man from Provo, Utah, began his day stealing cash and prescription medications. To get away, he stole a car but accidentally drove it into a fence, and in order to destroy evidence, he lit the car on fire. He was convicted of one count of arson, a second-degree felony, as well as felony and misdemeanor counts of theft, resulting in a sentence of five to 15 years depending on whether they are served concurrently.

It takes two

A man from Cadillac, Michigan, received a sentence of just under a year (330 days) after pleading guilty to fourth-degree arson involving the burning of a car. A second person also pleaded guilty after the pair was involved with setting a car on fire on private property in Clam Lake Township.

Pick your poison – automobile theft or arson

A man from Mabton, Washington, stole a car with a profit-making plan to dismantle the vehicle and sell the parts. He had difficulty removing the parts, became frustrated, and set the vehicle on fire. The man was sentenced within the standard range of four to 12 months for pleading guilty to possession of a stolen car and a reduced charge of reckless burning.

Prying eyes are watching you

A woman living in the outskirts of Chester, Pennsylvania, was found guilty of insurance fraud, arson, and filing a false report and was sentenced to 14 to 28 months. She smashed the window in her Honda the night before and set it on fire at 5 a.m. in the parking lot of her apartment complex. Despite conducting her fraudulent business at night and very early in the morning, her actions were seen by her neighbors.

Teacher gives students an “A” for arson

A high school chemistry teacher in Houston, Texas, who was behind on her Chevy Malibu car payments offered a passing grade to two failing students in her class if they agreed to burn her unwanted car for insurance money. At first, they thought she was kidding, but she continued with the proposition. With final exams approaching, the pair eventually accepted the deal. While the teacher was at the cinema with her 11-year-old daughter, the students drove her vehicle with the keys they found in the glove box to a secluded wooded area and doused it with lighter fluid. Before setting it on fire, the duo vandalized the Malibu and broke the steering column to make it seem like a real theft. Even before the insurance claim was settled, the teacher purchased a new shiny red car. True to her word, the students passed the class with one receiving a 90 percent and the other receiving an 80 percent on the final. Mobile phone records and a plea deal to avoid a lengthy sentence resulted in a conviction. The disgraced teacher received five years of deferred adjudication and 90 days in the Harris County Jail, along with having to surrender her teaching license.

Vehicle arson is not a victimless crime

In addition to the higher insurance premiums passed on to innocent customers, the responding firefighters are exposed to increased dangers from the deadly mixture of fuel and fire. A Los Angeles couple was involved in an arson for profit and insurance fraud scheme. The man who set the fire was convicted of arson with great bodily injury and was sentenced to 14 years in the California State Prison system. His partner was sentenced to three years of probation for the insurance fraud charge.