Driving with a cracked or broken windshield is not only annoying, it can also put both drivers and their passengers at risk. In fact, insurance companies in some states are required by law to waive the deductible for damaged or broken windshields in an effort to encourage vehicle owners to make the appropriate repairs.

However, Doug Ashbridge, Director of Special Investigations for Farmers Insurance Group, says some glass companies are using that loophole to persuade consumers that they can have new windshields for free, since they are fully covered by their insurance company. While the rationale appears logical to the consumer, the practice is illegal.

According to Ashbridge, replacing a windshield that is not damaged, and then charging the insurance company on the grounds that it is damaged, is considered insurance fraud and, he says, "is a growing problem nationwide."

In many cases, glass companies will rent parking lot space from auto repair facilities, convenience stores, gas stations or car washes, and prey upon those business' customers. The glass company representatives -- also called "glass claims harvesters" -- will approach vehicle owners, inspect their windshields and offer to fix or replace them for free even if the glass is not damaged.

Once the vehicle owner agrees to the deal, the harvester will subcontract the windshield replacement with another, less expensive glass company and turn a profit from the consumer's insurance claim. Some of the more aggressive harvesters even offer vehicle owners incentives, such as free car washes, free steaks or cash to replace windshields that are not in need of repair.

Once they obtain the vehicle owner's policy information, some harvesters impersonate the insured and submit multiple glass claims. Others repair windshields and then claim them as replacements, or claim more repairs than were actually done.

Ashbridge points out that the "free" windshield could ultimately cost vehicle owners their preferred status rating with their insurance company, resulting in rate increases, and possibly more severe penalties.

He warns that vehicle owners who agree to unnecessary windshield repairs or replacements from these types of glass company representatives could end up facing criminal charges.

Ashbridge notes that most glass companies are honest, so it's hard for consumers to know if the offers are dishonest. He advises them to contact their insurance agent before giving glass companies their policy information and letting them submit glass claims.

According to Ashbridge, industry studies show that property casualty insurance fraud costs consumers about $20 billion each year. In some states, it adds as much as $240 per year to every auto policy.