Comment - The made up crime that became real

Yahoo Finance editor James Andrews explains how a crime invented by a press relations team at an insurance company ended up coming true

Back in 2004 I got sent a press release from a car insurance firm – it warned of the dangers of “frosting”. I’d never heard of it.

The press notice explained that this worrying crime was doubly dangerous for drivers – not only would the victim lose their car, but their insurance would not cover the theft.

So what was “frosting” then? It was when, on a cold day, someone left their car engine running on the driveway and their car unattended while the windows defrosted. You wouldn’t be covered by insurance because you’d left the keys in the ignition.

Scary stuff and something that a lot of newspapers and websites reported on to warn their readers.

There was just one problem. It had never happened – the insurance firm made this “crime” up to get their name in the press, their press team later admitted to me.

So successful was this as a PR strategy, that every year since at least one company has sent out notices to the press, the police even started issuing warnings. Others commissioned surveys to show the full impact of this scourge of motorists.

Some 135,000 cars were reported to have been stolen that way over 5 years, according to one report. But when you compared the number of car thefts in Britain over that period, then cross referenced it with days when there was frost, there were more car thefts attributed to “frosting” than cars stolen on cold days.

That didn’t stop the story getting into the press, of course, along with the figures from the insurance firm’s survey to emphasise the dangers of this crime.

This juggernaut of news has kept rolling ever since – with warnings of the dangers of “frosting” or “frost napping” appearing every time temperatures dip - except with one crucial difference.

It’s happened now. At least two cars have been stolen in the last few years by thieves looking out for cars with the engine running on a driveway, then nipping in and making off with them. A woman in Berkshire was badly injured in 2008 as a result of one such incident.

The crime made up to get an insurance firm some press coverage has now become real.