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Arson: Behavioral and Economic Aspects

Arson For Profit

Although the insurance-claim firesetter represents a longstanding type with economic motives for arson, since the early 1970s newer and more pervasive forms of arson for profit have become evident. A common pattern involves the purchase of property in decaying inner-city neighborhoods at a low price, followed by several changes of ownership in order to double or triple its paper value. Insurance is obtained, promises of rehabilitation are made, and fire then breaks out. An alternative pattern is manifested by owner-set fires in large inner-city apartment buildings, the rental profits from which have diminished over the years owing to decaying neighborhoods and economic recession. The annual taxes on such properties often exceed the rental income, reducing the market value to near zero. Incineration then becomes the only economically viable method of disposing of the building. Arson-for-profit is typically planned well ahead and the insured usually has a solid alibi far away from the crime scene. Another type of arsonist, often referred to as a "fire stripper," burns buildings and then scavenges them for plumbing, wiring, and fixtures exposed in the gutted structure.

Little is known about those involved in arson for profit, for few are arrested and convicted. Federal Bureau of Investigation data from the 1970s through the close of the 1990s reflect considerable consistency regarding those arrested for arson: the vast majority are white males under the age of twenty-five. But studies of imprisoned and paroled arsonists fail to detect many arson entrepreneurs, or "professional torches."

Fire insurance companies, however, have provided at least some insight into the dynamics of arson for profit and "arsonists for hire." Socalled fire brokers, to give an example, specialize in locating failing businesses or decaying properties for persons who intend ultimately to "sell" them to an insurance company. Such brokers make arrangements for the legitimate sale of the targeted property, the inflated insurance, the fire, and the insurance settlement. Their fees range from 10 percent to 20 percent of the insurance value. These brokers generally work in conjunction with "arson co-ops," or rings that specialize in sophisticated methods of property incineration.

There is also evidence that organized crime is involved in the arson business, offering property owners package deals that begin with the fire and end with complete arrangements for settlement. Insurance investigators also believe that many fires result from extortion by underworld loan sharks, who arrange for incendiary fires and insurance settlements in order to force their principals to pay outstanding debts.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawArson: Behavioral and Economic Aspects - Offender Types, Arson For Profit, Arson And Collective Violence, Statistical And Economic Issues, Bibliography