SAN DIEGO – The Orange County man told police someone swiped his car from a parking lot as he accompanied his mother to a doctor's appointment. He even had an officer help him search for the 1989 Honda.
So authorities wondered how the car was impounded by police four days earlier in the dusty beach town of Rosarito, Mexico.
Fraud investigators said it was another example of an "owner give-up," a concept that is probably as old as car insurance.
Someone gets tired of their vehicle or can no longer afford it, so they decide to ditch it someplace to collect a payment from their insurer. In the Southwest, that place is often Mexico, where many assume their car will be lost amid the region's chaos, poverty and miles of junk yards.
"It's happens frequently," said Terry Cannon, a prosecutor in the fraud division in the San Diego County District attorney's office. "People see it as a a shortcut, a quick way to get rid of a car."
No one can say how often owner give-ups occur. But Cannon and other investigators expect to see more if the U.S. economy continues to sour and more people find they can't make their payments or need to avoid penalties for exceeding the mileage on a lease.
"People think they can go to Mexico and get away with anything," said Randy Garcia, an investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an insurer-funded agency.
The problem is probably most severe in Southern California, experts say, because it is the largest metropolitan region on the U.S.-Mexico border. But, even still, authorities are making progress at prosecuting people who ditch their cars.
At the moment, San Diego County is prosecuting about 10 cases, Cannon said. To the north in Orange County, prosecutors have about six, said Eric Wiseman, a fraud investigator in the office.
It's a small number considering the counties had a combined total of 30,000 stolen vehicles last year. In part, that's because some withdraw claims when confronted with suspicions while other cases are hard to prove, said Ralph Lumpkin, director of the NICB's border unit in California.
A common tip-off to investigators is a car recovered with no damage to the ignition or no signs of forced entry, but that alone isn't proof. "People do leave their cars with the keys in it or the engine running," Lumpkin said. "That doesn't mean they wanted to have it stolen."
But investigators point to successes like the Orange County parking lot case.
The owner of the 1989 Honda, 35-year-old Jess Salsman of Orange, continues to insist his car was stolen, according to his lawyer, Sherwin Edelberg. But the California Highway Patrol, which started the investigation, and the Orange County district attorney, see it otherwise.
Four days before his reported theft in Newport Beach, a woman in Rosarito, about 100 miles to the south, called police after the car apparently was abandoned on her street, Wiseman said.
Mexican police took it to an impound lot in Tijuana that is checked regularly by the CHP, as well as investigators from the NICB and private vehicle recovery companies that operate in the region.
The action by Mexican police is not unusual. The NICB's California office recovered 1,000 stolen or abandoned cars in Mexico last year and hopes to reach 1,900 this year in large part due to improving cooperation from authorities south of the border, investigators said.
"Regardless of what some people say, the police in Mexico do a good job and report cars to us," said Lumpkin, who retired from the FBI before becoming an insurance investigator.
The higher recovery rate helps foil some people's plans to abandon their cars, Wiseman said. "Most of the cars that are taken down there are recovered," he said. "People are getting their cars back. They don't want them, but they get them back anyway."
Technology also helps. U.S. Customs has installed digital license-plate readers at nine of the 34 ports of entry along the Southwest border that it uses in its fight against contraband.
But police also use that data to establish when a car entered Mexico, information that can be used to confront a suspicious claim.
Authorities also are helped by the fact that many malls and other businesses have video surveillance in parking lots, which can be used to show a car wasn't parked where the owner claimed to have left it.
This information aids prosecutors if a case goes to trial, which is unlikely. Salsman was one of the rare ones. He was convicted by a jury last month and sentenced to 120 days in jail, though he remains free while he pursues an appeal, his lawyer said.
More common, is a case like that of a 22-year-old San Diego woman who was convicted after she claimed her 1986 Volkswagen Cabriolet was stolen from a Chula Vista mall. It didn't show up on the parking lot video and the Customs license reader picked it up entering Tijuana.
She pleaded guilty last spring and was ordered to serve two days in jail and pay back the nearly $4,000 she received from her insurance company.
Authorities said they often are willing to accept a relatively light penalty and restitution, but they aren't willing to throw up their hands at fraud as they did in the past.
"People should be aware that law enforcement takes a look at these cases," said Russ Pierce, an NICB investigator and former Washington State trooper. "It's not just a slam dunk anymore."