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Idaho insurance department says Toyota ads encourage fraud

BOISE – Idaho’s Department of Insurance is objecting to a Toyota ad campaign that shows people destroying their old cars so they can buy new Toyotas.

The ads encourage insurance fraud, the department contends, and the scenes depict criminal behavior.

Don Roberson, fraud investigator for the department, has written a letter to the president of Toyota asking that the ads be pulled. “Insurance fraud is a very costly and very harmful venture,” Roberson said. “It affects all of us in the form of increased premiums.”

Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said: “The TV spots … were meant to be humorous, not in any way to be taken literally.”

In the ads, an announcer says, “Something strange happens to people this time of year. They look for reasons to buy a new Toyota.” As the announcer speaks, a family in one ad pushes a boulder over a cliff. In another ad, a businessman pushes his vehicle off the top of a parking garage. The ads conclude as the vehicles are smashed and the announcer says, “There’s never been a better time to get the new Toyota you’ve always wanted” – crash – “or needed.”

The ads are part of a series of more than a dozen TV and radio spots that Knight said Toyota wanted to use to “cut through the advertising clutter for the end-of-the-year auto industry selldown, when we’re trying to move old models out for the new year. We’ve gotten a lot of great response to the commercials from the consuming public.”

Idaho’s insurance department, which has no regulatory sway over Toyota, joins the national Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in criticizing the ads.

The coalition, based in Washington, D.C., includes insurance, law enforcement and consumer groups. It has been protesting the ads since they came out in mid-December.

James Quiggle, coalition spokesman, said, “There’s been a lot of buzz among the states about this. … A lot of the fraud bureau directors are concerned, and to some degree offended, by ads that encourage a social environment that treats insurance fraud as fun for the whole family, or as a victimless crime.”

Roberson said Idaho has had its problems with insurance fraud – including cases of people destroying their cars to try to claim insurance money.

Two recent convictions and one pending court case involved southeastern Idaho residents whose cars, reported stolen, were later found in the desert, torched.

“We had a rash of it there for a while,” Roberson said.

Roberson said public acceptance of insurance fraud is alarmingly high and rising. He cited coalition research showing that more than one in four adults in the United States believe it is acceptable to cheat on an insurance claim, up from 21 percent nine years ago.

Knight said Toyota declined to pull the ads, which already were scheduled to end today.

“Our marketers don’t feel that they encourage insurance fraud, but they hope to build awareness that we have cars for sale, and please go down to your dealership and take a look,” she said. “We hope that people will laugh along with us.”