Insurance Mystery: The Car That Couldn’t Be Stolen – But Was

Or was it?

Only Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s Swedish sleuth, could work through this two-minute mystery. Guy Carpenter provides the clues:

A Swedish man parks his Volvo in a lot near a train station and a major highway. He locks it and walks away. Ninety minutes later, he returns. The car is gone – stolen!

But it can’t be stolen. It has an immobilizer. This is a bit of auto technology standard in parts of Europe but just coming to the U.S. The immobilizer makes a car impossible to start unless said immobilizer is close by. The immobilizer sends a faint signal uniquely identifying itself. The car’s computer recognizes the signal. Only then will the car start.

The immobilizer is designed to make car theft impossible. Each car responds to a unique signal. This car had two immobilizers that sent the correct signal, and the car’s owner had them both at all times.

Yet, the car is gone. So how can you steal a car that can’t be stolen?

That’s what the claims adjuster wanted to know. In fact this insurance company (unnamed by GuyCarp) alleged fraud. If the car was stolen, the insurer would have to honor the theft claim. If there was fraud, the claim would be denied.

The insurance company’s case:

  • The immobilizer can only be defeated by stripping it out and replacing it. But doing that takes more than 90 minutes, which is how long the car was left alone.
  • More than 90% of stolen cars in Sweden are recovered within eight to 10 days.
  • The rest are either expensive or exclusive cars stolen by sophisticated theft rings, or are fraud.
  • The missing car is not expensive or exclusive. It’s a $25,000 Volvo – lots of those in Sweden.
  • Ergo: Fraud!

This argument might not go far in the United States criminal law, where the burden of proof is quite high. But in Sweden, an insurer can make the claimant prove his loss occurred. Then the insurer can challenge the proof. The court sides with the preponderance of the evidence.

In this case, the insurer argued that fraud was more statistically likely than theft, therefore it could deny the claim.

The court offered this solution: The car was towed away. After the owner walked off, the car was alone near a major highway. A thief could have been cruising along the highway in a tow truck. He spots the Volvo sitting unattended. He parks alongside it, hoists it onto his tow truck, then drives off.

Once safely away, the thief can disarm the immobilizer.

The statistical evidence the insurer amassed was enough, by itself, to carry the burden of proof.

Case solved!

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