Arson: America's Most Costly Crime

December 10, 1982

Report Outline
Extent of the Problem
Insurance Industry Role
Anti-Arson Campaigns
Special Focus

Extent of the Problem

Mounting Arson Losses Across the Nation

In a scene from the 1981 movie “Body Heat,” a professional arsonist, played by actor Mickey Rourke, explains what is involved in clandestinely setting fire to a building. “You gotta get in. You gotta get out. You gotta pick the right spot, the right time,” the character says, “and you gotta try to not get famous while you're in the act….I'll tell you something…this arson is serious crime.”

Arson is, indeed, a serious crime in this country. “The United States has the highest rate of arson in the world,” Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said in a speech on the Senate floor Sept. 22. “Arson is this nation's fastest-growing crime, quadrupling during the last decade and increasing tenfold in dollar losses….Arson represents 25 percent of all fires and also 25 percent of our fire insurance premiums.”

The U.S. Fire Administration, the government agency that researches, analyzes and disseminates fire data, estimates that there were more than 175,000 arson fires in this country last year, resulting in 877 deaths and 3,595 injuries. These blazes also accounted for nearly $2 billion in smoke and fire damage. Indirect losses were estimated at about $15 billion. “Arson is America's costliest crime,” said Sen. Glenn. “In 1981, the average loss per incident for arson was $9,399.” That amount was nearly double the combined average loss for other property crimes—auto theft ($3,173), burglary ($934), robbery ($665) and larceny ($340).

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