To THE TRAINED fire investigator, most incendiary fires are identifiable, yet the individuals responsible for these crimes are the least punished by the courts. Thus arson-for-profit is commonly known as a low-risk, highprofit venture. Arson takes on many forms: Every day, otherwise law-abiding citizens, usually trapped by unfortunate circumstances, try to defraud their insurance company and collect on their policies. Household and commercial schemes are becoming more sophisticated and are limited only by the imagination. Regardless of the particular firefor-profit scam, odds are in the arsonist’s favor.
In recent years most insurance companies have attempted to control arsonfor-profit by developing fraud units and working with local fire officials. One effective weapon has been the PropertyInsurance Loss Register (PILR), which was set up by the American Insurance Association in 1980 to collect and computerize data on every fire loss in excess of $1,000. Information is stored for five years. Currently 844 insurance companies, writing 95 percent of the nation’s fire insurance premiums, subscribe to the PILR system.
However, despite efforts by the private and public sectors, arson is still the second costliest crime in America (embezzlement is the first). According to the NFPA’s latest research, the estimated structural damage from incendiary or suspicious fires for 1988 approached S1.6 billion—roughly one out of every four dollars lost to fires. Suspicious vehicle fires added $150 million to that total. Furthermore, four of the past five editions (1984 to 1988) of the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which includes automobile and structural fires, indicate a continuous rise in the crime of arson. In 1988 the reported incidence of automobile and structural fires decreased, but this could be traced to the fact that the number of reporting agencies decreased from 12,649 in 1987 to 12,184 in 1988. In the book Burning, by Aetna Life and Casualty, John Barracato writes that depending on the area of the country, fires-for-profit can “account for up to 40 percent of arson fires.”
Therefore, after reviewing the scenarios of past schemes, examining the latest fire facts, and frequently facing fires set for profit, I have developed a five-step basis for an arson prevention program.
D.E.T.E.R. THE ARSONIST
Documentation. Document as much information as possible about the circumstances surrounding each questionable fire. This includes getting names of the benefactor of insurance coverage, agents, and adjusters. Take photographs or videotape the scene to pinpoint fire origin and record any physical evidence. Explore possible motives for the fraudulent fire and who had an opportunity to set the blaze. Obviously, if you uncover a suspicious pattern, you must share this information with the insurance company to delay or even deny a payoff.
Education. Educate the business community about the harmful longterm effects of fires in a commercial district. Increase public awareness by explaining some popular arsonist tactics: blocking showroom windows with remodeling or clearance sale signs, damaging threads on neighborhood fire hydrants to deplete water supplies, and removing personal items and inventory.
Training. Alert the police, who are usually the first to arrive at an emergency scene, to common clues indicating arson, such as unusual odor, color of flames, and speed of flame spread.
Expansion. Expand your task force. Seldom can one or two individuals have all the expertise and time necessary to determine the point of origin, extract evidence, review financial documents, and prosecute. Therefore, any antiarson task force should include cause and origin experts, law enforcement officers, accountants, lawyers, and claims adjusters.
Resource pooling. No agency, either private or government, can completely fund a thorough investigation without mutual cooperation and communication. Overinsurance, taxes, liens, code violations, poor credit rating, obsolete stock, fictitious invoices, and gambling and drug debts all can motivate arsonists. Arson hotlines have been effective when the fire department operates them and the insurance industry rewards tipsters.