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An Insight Into Vehicle Fraud Investigations

May 20, 2022

Catastrophic global events often lead to an increase in cases of fraud; this was evident in the 2008 recession, in which we statistically saw a significant rise in arson claims. We have seen the same trend since March 2020. However, we don’t look at every claim we investigate as potentially fraudulent because we’re in a recession.

A forensic expert must look at the physical evidence with no bias or preconceptions. Then, we must translate what this physical evidence expresses into a thorough report; this helps clients apply that information to their policy, whether to determine coverage, subrogation possibilities, or liability.

Background and discovery information

Every investigation starts with a collection of witness statements from the fire department and police reports. Discovery information also includes servicing history, history of the vehicle, and the vehicle’s performance before the fire. We ask for the vehicle accident history from the insured or through a CARFAX.

Photos are also invaluable during investigations. We ask for any pictures taken just before, during, and after the fire. Knowing the vehicle’s reported condition and use before the fire is essential.

Before examining a vehicle, forensic experts also search for recalls, technical service bulletins, and blogs related to the vehicle’s year, make, and model. At times, an investigation will require the determination of the wind effects. In those cases, the vehicle orientation and fire time are crucial information. We also want to know if the scene is still available for some fires.

Documenting vehicle fire scenes

The first step to documenting these scenes is confirming the VIN. A forensic expert will apply the same principles as structure fires if a VIN can’t be verified; this means beginning the vehicle examination from the outside and working your way toward the most significant damage area. It’s crucial to note that the area of greatest damage isn’t always the area of origin; it could result from ventilation or fuel load.

If possible, the vehicle examination should take place at the fire scene. However, there is often a better possibility of origin and cause determination when examining a vehicle where the fire has happened for two reasons:

  1. Surrounding fire patterns around the vehicle will show the wind effects and the surrounding fuel loads.
  2. Evidence that has fallen from the vehicle can be retained. When a car is moved, evidence can be lost in the debris.

It’s often impossible to examine a vehicle at the fire scene because it has to be towed away if it’s being driven at the time. The process of documenting vehicle fire scenes stays the same no matter the circumstances. The more faithful we are to this process, the more vivid the evidence of fraud becomes, and the stronger the technical opinion of a forensic expert.

Total burns and stolen and recovered vehicles

When a vehicle has been burnt to a crisp (total burn) and stolen and recovered, crucial physical evidence is hard to analyze. However, several factors and techniques can significantly improve the evidence analysis.

Depending on the age of the vehicle, a locksmith can assist with door locks and ignition cylinders to see if a key was used. In addition, they often have access to the manufacturer’s specs and aftermarket security installations.

Depending on the extent of damage, the infotainment module may be downloaded and compared to the reported discovery and background information. Moreover, we can determine the pre-fire condition of the engine and transmission by analyzing the fluids. Fire debris for flammable liquids needs to be collected soon after the fire because it can evaporate. Therefore, it’s best to manage it within days because it increases the chances of getting an accurate test result.

It’s crucial to remember that fire suppression water will dilute and flush away the accelerant. As a result, it can destroy and throw evidence 50 to 100 feet away from a vehicle.

When investigating a fire, the origin must be determined through various means before thinking about possible causes.

Personal line case study 1

Figure 1: The vehicle’s dash area

The reported information was that smoke was discovered coming from the dash area. The driver exited the vehicle and called 911. 

Working from the areas of most minor damage to those of most wear, we discovered some surface scorching to the dash. But there was much more damage below the area left of the passenger footwell. 

Figure 2: A photo taken from the driver’s side footwell.

Figure 2 shows a similar amount of fire damage low in the dash. Again, this is similar to what was observed in figure 1.

Figure 3: An image of the passenger footwell.

During the examination, we saw melted plastic in the passenger footwell. The remains of the HVAC fan and its blades were also found in this area. The fan blades had fallen from their installation site. However, the dash above the area observed not much fire damage. None of the wiring harnesses or other components showed a high degree of fire damage.

Figure 4: After melted plastic was removed, the center lower area of the dash.

After the melted plastic was removed, the center lower portion of the dash was examined. Wads of napkins were discovered in the area of fire origin, and there was no evidence of an accidental ignition source. The insured could not explain why there were wads of napkins in an inaccessible area of the enclosed dash unless panels and carpeting were moved out of the way.

Personal line case study 2

Figure 5

The reported information was that the vehicle was driven when the owner noticed smoke escaping the passenger side dash. He pulled the truck over, called 911, opened the front passenger door, went around, and moved away from the vehicle. 

The fire patterns observed in the examination did not support a fire starting inside the dash. Instead, it seemed like a fire had burned in the footwell or on the seat and attacked the dash. In addition, the components inside the dash cavity were in good condition. Therefore, if a fire started inside the dash, these items would be damaged and consumed before the fire even spread to other parts of the vehicle. 

Figure 6: The excavated footwell

The footwell was excavated, and a large amount of packed and folded cardboard was discovered in the area, along with aerosol cans.

Figure 7: The cardboard layers discovered during excavation.

Permission was provided to remove the infotainment system, which was in excellent condition.

Figure 8: The infotainment module.

The download of this module showed that the vehicle had been pulled over at this location for about 16 minutes, with the car running and the doors opening and closing before the fire, causing the data to stop being recorded. 

Figure 9: The report obtained from the infotainment system.

The driver had reported that he smelled, then saw smoke escaping the dash, pulled over, and called 911 at 1:38 pm. The bottom axis in the report shows the time and date, and the left axis shows the vehicle’s speed. There was no documented travelling of the car after 01:20 pm on the infotainment download. 

The vehicle stopped moving at about 01:16 pm that day. The fire department report showed they were on the scene at 02:05 pm. The infotainment download showed that the vehicle was pulled over at 01:16 pm, and the truck didn’t move after that time. The only activity was doors opening and closing.

Commercial case study 1 

A commercial vehicle was being driven when the driver reported some warning lights and smoke entering the cab from the dash area. 

Figure 10: The engine compartment of the vehicle.

The reported information was that the vehicle’s owner was pulled over on the side of the road. When a passing tow truck pulled over, the driver jumped out, grabbed his fire extinguisher then quickly and efficiently extinguished the fire. 

Upon arrival at the scene, we noted that the origin was small and located in the engine compartment beside or inside the fuse block. 

Figure 11: The exterior of the fuse panel.

Some surface deformation and scorching to the exterior of the fuse panel were observed. However, this distortion to the material and the effects of heat were only present on the external surfaces. The areas adjacent to the affected location were utterly unaffected by the fire, indicating a very targeted application of flame on the surface. 

Figure 12: The wiring harnesses in the fuse block, with insulation.

We examined and thoroughly documented the fuse block’s plastic body and the area’s wiring harnesses. First, we examined the wiring harnesses and began with the exterior protective cover (the loom). The loom protects the wiring harnesses located inside the fuse block. Next, the exterior and interior surfaces were examined after the removal of all sections of the loom. This allowed us to examine the wiring and insulation inside and on each of the conductors inside the harnesses.

Figure 13: The internal wiring.

Once all the charred material and loom were removed, there was no evidence that any of the wirings had failed. Inside each strand in figure 12 is copper wiring, where the current flows. In addition, each conductor has a sleeve of insulation. In this case, only surface charring of the loom and some minor heat damage to the insulation in some of the individual conductors were present. Therefore, we concluded that the only good ignition source for this fire was the direct application of flame. 

Commercial case study 2

Figure 14: An image of the top surface of the hood.

A truck was parked in the operator’s driveway when he got alerted to the fire by a neighbor in the middle of the night. The truck hadn’t been driven in a few hours, eliminating the possibility of hot surface ignition as an accidental fire cause. The only other options were electrical or intentional ignition. 

To determine the fire’s origin, we compared the fire damage and corrosion effects on the interior and exterior surfaces of the hood, the right fender, and the bulkhead at the base of the windshield. The top surface of the hood had orange corrosion occurring. 

Figure 15: The underside of the hood.

The underside of the hood had minimal corrosion effects at the back-end edge, close to the base of the windshield. However, the underside did not show the extent of corrosion observed on the top surface of the hood; this indicated that the fire possibly originated on the vehicle’s exterior and not inside the engine compartment; this was the first clue that the fire may have been intentionally set.

Figure 16: The area of fire damage.

The fire damage in the right rear quadrant of the engine compartment had a considerable amount of electrical wiring that needed to be examined for evidence of electrical failures. An energized wire could provide proof of an arcing loss resulting from the fire spread. In this case, there were no electrical failures in the general area of fire damage. 

The fire burned intensely on the vehicle’s exterior surfaces from an accelerant being poured. In contrast, there was less fire damage and loss of material inside the engine compartment. 

Figure 17: The passenger fender.

The passenger fender showed the effects of an accelerant burning on the exterior surface. However, the side of the fender facing the tire and the engine compartment had less loss of material in comparison. 

These case studies indicate that physical evidence is the most critical aspect of vehicle fire investigations. As a forensic expert, you don’t have to factor in the insured’s intent because it is outside the scope of your inquiry. However, legal experts must carefully determine the purpose where necessary. 

The Arson Triangle

Typically, people steal vehicles to drive or tear them out for parts. So, a car with significant fire damage is a major cause for concern. Vehicle fires, as a result, always warrant an extensive investigation that considers these three points:

  1. Proof of a deliberately set fire
  2. Motive 
  3. Opportunity 

We rely on forensic experts to show that there’s an incendiary fire. Motive, the second part of this triangle, is inevitably financial. The financial reason is often demonstrated in documents or other investigations. The third part of the arson triangle answers who had the last or best chance to be on the fire scene. Cell phones and video surveillance had made it easier to determine when people were at the scene, which often turns out to be a vital part of the analysis. 

Statutory condition 6 is your friend.

Statutory condition 6 allows an insurer to submit an examination under oath. Using this statutory condition, an insurer can obtain financial or maintenance records, amongst others. For example, securing bank records or a credit card history of the insured could help determine the motive. Vehicle records could also help determine the reason for arson. 

Case study

Figure 18: The burnt vehicle.

The insured reported a vehicle stolen from the driveway during the night and was found burned the next day. The fact that the car was found burned was a cause for suspicion. In this case, investigators determined that an accelerant was used to start the fire in the vehicle’s backseat. 

This determination met the first requirement of the arson triangle – confirmation of an incendiary fire. Statutory condition six was used to get an undertaking to obtain maintenance and bank records. The maintenance records showed that the vehicle was in the shop for fairly serious repairs every other month, and the insured still owed money on the purchase. In addition, the vehicle needed a new transmission at the time of the incident, and the estimated cost was approximately $4,000. So, a significant payment was on the horizon if the owner wanted to keep the vehicle. The bank records showed that the insured was in a financially precarious position. He was overdrawn on his bank account and had credit card debt. So, there was a financial motive as well. The vehicle was in the insured’s driveway, and the owner had the only set of keys at the time. When looking at a vehicle fire, you always want to start with the keys for the opportunity element – who had the keys or access to the keys? All the elements of fraud were present in this case, and the claim was denied. However, the insured continued with the claim. 

Our experts continued their investigation because it appeared that the case could go to court. In addition, the investigators spoke with the ex-girlfriend of the insured, and she knew of the entire plot to burn the vehicle. She gave us a signed statement where she detailed what occurred.

The insured returned with his ex a few months later and tried to resurrect the claim, but we already had the signed statement. This example underscores the importance of detective work. 

You must ensure that you’re turning over every rock during the investigation and doing so fairly and comprehensively. People who commit these crimes also tend to talk to their loved ones. And so, interviewing the right person is a big help. Social media dramatically assists you; you can find the insured’s close friends. 

Key takeaways

  • Leave no stone unturned and ensure you do it in good faith. Every investigation should be comprehensive.
  • Social media is a massive tool for your investigation. A complete social media search could considerably benefit your case. 
  • Consult the arson triangle in potentially fraudulent claims. 
Contact Origin and Cause for Vehicle Fraud Investigation Today!