A growing number of financially strapped car owners are torching, sinking or ditching their vehicles in a practice known as owner give-ups.
When gas prices shot up to $4 a gallon last summer, investigators reported a number of suspicious auto theft claims involving SUVs and other gas guzzlers.
But as gas prices dipped and the economy sputtered, the trend extended to all kinds of models, with losses concentrated in regions hit hard by layoffs, foreclosures and other signs of economic distress.
SUVs have been found ablaze in Nevada, cars have been dumped in a Miami canal and a BMW was discovered buried in a field in Texas.
Authorities say most of the false claims are filed by first-time offenders looking for a quick financial fix without regard for consequences.
Dallas County sheriff's investigator Tom Reilly says he and his colleagues are seeing people "doing this kind of crime who ordinarily wouldn't steal candy from a store."
In Dallas County, Reilly estimates suspicious auto theft reports have increased 12 percent this year.
Investigators in border states are finding an increasing number of charred cars with American license plates in Mexico.
Such cases can result in felony charges of insurance fraud, making false statements to police and insurance providers, and arson, if the car is burned.
Along with serving prison time, defendants can also be ordered to pay restitution.
Reilly says most of his cases don't make it to trial because suspects strike plea deals. Some even agree to discuss their crimes in videotaped interviews that Reilly uses for educational seminars.
"Some said my back was against the wall, or this looked like a good idea at the time, who can I hurt?" Reilly said.
James Quiggle, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, blames the problem on people who think "insurance companies are rich and fat and won't miss a few dollars."
Experts say the insurance losses are recouped from honest consumers as premium increases.