Vehicle arson: a combustible crime

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) Each year during the first full week in May, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and its partners work to raise awareness of arson and provide individuals with strategies to combat it in their community.

This year, Arson Awareness Week is May 4 – 10 and focuses on 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%) 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 motivations and prevention tips

  • Investigating a vehicle arson can be difficult. Multiple points of origin are common because of all the natural accelerants in a vehicle. The fire itself destroys potential evidence. There are several fuel sources, including gasoline, wiring, and both interior and exterior components. There are numerous ignition sources, including the engine, electrical systems, and exhaust parts. The significant electrical wiring system has to be completely evaluated, which is both time-consuming and physically difficult. Compact structures, such as vehicles, burn quickly and completely and are extremely difficult to investigate.

If you suspect a vehicle arson:

  • Look for a tampered fuel system, including tool marks and severely damaged parts, such as the carburetor.
  • An electrical short can cause a vehicle fire when the battery’s charge is low. The investigator can measure the battery’s charge — a fully charged battery does not support that claim.
  • Vehicle fires are often contained in the compartment in which they started — parts located in the engine compartment will not burn the entire car unless an accelerant is used to spread the flames.
  • If a serious defect in the engine is discovered, the owner may have wanted to collect insurance money rather than pay for repairs.
  • The passenger compartment also offers clues to investigators. Check to see if the owner removed his or her possessions before the fire.
  • Most car owners guilty of arson will claim that their cars were stolen before the fire was set — the investigator must validate this claim by checking the ignition for damage.
  • Check the windows — a typical car fire won’t generate enough heat to melt the glass windows, whereas an accelerant would generate much more heat, melting the windows.
  • Examine the exterior of the car to determine if extensive bodywork was required that the owner did not want to pay to repair.

E.S.C.A.P.E. Fire Safety and the U.S. Fire Administration offer some simple yet important tips to prevent vehicle arson:

  • Park your car in a well-lit area.
  • Use a secure parking lot for extended periods.
  • Close all windows and sun roofs.
  • 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.

For more information on Vehicle Arson and Arson Awareness Week, click here.

By taking some extra time and using common sense, you can prevent vehicle arson Where You Live!

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