Investigators wonder if economy is involved in suspicious fires

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Three suspicious fires today have investigators wondering whether the tough economy could have something to do with it. Investigators say fire fraud was a problem in Utah during a recession in the early 80s, and they're starting to see more of those kind of cases now.

Investigators have not determined a cause on the two West Jordan fires or the fire that destroyed a home in Mapleton today, but they are saying the fires are suspicious.

Homeowners burning down their own homes during tough times isn't unheard of. In fact, investigators have a name for it; they call it "selling it to the insurance company."

Brent Halladay, a former fire inspector for the fire marshal's office, knows tough times can lead to desperate ends. He said, "For a number of years in Utah, fraud was the number one cause of fires."

That was in early 80s when the energy boom in the Uintah Basin and Carbon and Emery Counties went flat. People were losing their jobs and couldn't pay their mortgages.

"When that went down, we had many homes for sale. We had a lot of homes being burned because people just couldn't sell their homes," Halladay said.

Halladay remembers a week when he worked with the fire marshal. "I put two people in jail in one week," he said. He fears history could repeat itself.

"We hope we don't see what we think we're starting to see," he said.

Halladay says most fires are started by juveniles, but there has been an increase in insurance-related fires. In fact, he's investigating several fraud cases in outlying counties.

The news of three suspicious fires today heightens concerns that it may be just the beginning. In West Jordan, fires damaged two homes sitting a few hundred feet apart. Both homes are in foreclosure. And in Mapleton, a multi-million dollar mansion went up in flames. The fire is suspicious, but at this point, investigators aren't calling it arson.

Halladay hopes for the best, but he says, no matter how bad it gets, fraud isn't worth it.

"Most people feel that they can start a fire, and everything will be burned completely up, and they will never be caught. And that couldn't be further from the truth," he said.

Halladay says because the foreclosure process can take a while, we could see more fraud cases in about a year.


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Sandra Yi


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