Making a Problem Vehicle Disappear

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you have a big, gas-guzzling, late-model SUV sitting in your driveway. Then, let’s say that the company where you work has cut back your hours by 25 percent and that your spouse has job worries, too. As the final straw, let’s say that your still-shiny SUV is worth several thousand dollars less than you owe on the auto loan you pay every month. With all this rolling around in your mind, is it any wonder that you might say to yourself, “Hey, I’d be better off if somebody stole this thing.” Of course, you can’t send for a thief, but many cash-strapped consumers are essentially doing it themselves by ditching their car in locales where they might be stolen, damaged or just “disappear.” Some are even trying to seal the deal by setting fire to their former pride and joy. 

The practice has become so widespread that many states are on the lookout for this criminal activity. For example, the Alabama Department of Revenue just launched its Abandoned Vehicle Information Service, which allows subscribers to locate Alabama title and registration information on abandoned vehicles that are becoming ever more prevalent. The information can be used to contact the title holder of the vehicle to inform them of their automobile’s location. (It should be noted here that with a financed vehicle, the titleholder is not the driver but instead the financial institution that holds “the paper” on the loan.) The new database also includes current and pending lien holder information as well as any pending title applications.

“This new service will save time and money,” said Lynn Hurst, the president of the Alabama Towing and Recovery Association and owner of Hurst Towing and Recovery in Birmingham, Ala. “A traditional abandoned vehicle request could take 14 to 20 days, where the new online application produces instant results, allowing users to get the proper information to the public faster.”

The abandoned vehicle trend is, of course, not limited to Alabama. Across the country, with the current economic fortunes tumbling, consumers are resorting to desperate measures in an attempt to find some economic peace of mind. What they might find instead is a jail sentence. Many of these incidents amount to insurance fraud, and both law enforcement and private insurance investigators are quick to pounce.

A recent article by James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, noted that “vehicle giveups” -- as these incidents are termed in the insurance industry -- are growing across the country, generally in response to bad times. The efforts to ditch their unwanted cars or trucks are as varied as murder plots in which one spouse attempts to exchange the life of the other for cash and/or valuable prizes. For instance, as Hurricane Gustav roared in on Mississippi in late August of last year, dozens of vehicles were “suspiciously abandoned” at beaches, piers and other low-lying areas close to its path. In Fresno County, Calif., police uncovered a ring that allegedly stole and torched vehicles for hire. And a vehicle was recently found at the bottom of Lake Erie with a rock tied to its accelerator. Hmmmm.

The list goes on and on, but the takeaway on “giveups” should be that it is illegal, your insurance company will immediately become suspicious, and the price you pay for committing this crime will be far higher than the amount of money you have left on a loan. Here’s some simple but good advice: If you can’t make your car payment, go to your lender and seek relief. There is a good chance they’d prefer that you keep your car on an adjusted payment schedule rather than they get it back. Even if you take a financial bath, it’s better than going to the big house, where you might be afraid to pick up the soap.