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SALT LAKE CITY — The number of car thefts in Utah only seems to be going up, and car owners are making it easy for those looking to take the wheel, according to police.
Stolen cars can wind up in pursuits with police or abandoned with the thief nowhere in sight.
On average, approximately 16 cars are stolen a day in Utah. There were 6,000 reports of stolen vehicles in 2012, according to crime data from police departments across the state. Police acknowledge the criminals aren't letting up this year.
"This fall and summer the number of vehicles being stolen has skyrocketed," said Sgt. Robert Hamilton of the West Valley City Police Department.
Ryan Cashin and Kennedy Nate — both of Salt Lake County — became victims. Cashin, whose vehicle was stolen in the Salt Lake City area, walked outside after a day at work and knew something wasn't right.
"I came out at three and started looking for my car and it wasn't here," he said.
Nate — of Cottonwood Heights — woke up one morning and got a sinking feeling when he stepped outside.
"I walked downstairs and told my wife, ‘I think the van has been stolen, let's call the police,'" he said.
Salt Lake City: 1,706*
Unified Police Department: 834
West Valley City: 657
West Jordan: 228
South Salt Lake: 206
*The Salt Lake City Police Department reports a higher number of auto thefts on its website than what is listed on the FBI Uniform Crime Report. This could be due to a number of factors, which may include the dates comprehensive reports are run, dates cases are adjudicated, and how an offense is categorized.
Frustrated victims can find themselves sorting fact from fiction as they scramble to find their cars, and there seem to be several myths surrounding how these cases get investigated.
One of the biggest myths is that police don't do much to get stolen cars back.
KSL-TV rode along with officers from the West Valley City Police Department to see what actions are being taken in these situations. For several nights last month, seven law enforcement agencies from across the Salt Lake Valley teamed up to investigate vehicle thefts.
The team of police officers arrested 53 people and located 29 stolen cars. KSL-TV's analysis of crime reports shows that in Utah, most stolen vehicles are recovered. In Salt Lake City, for example, police report a recovery rate of 76 percent over the last year.
Not all cars are found in good condition, however. Cashin said his car, which police located about a week and a half after it was stolen, was totaled. Criminals tend to use the cars they commandeer for joy riding or to get themselves to their next crime.
Cashin got another surprise when he walked up to his car.
"I showed up and there wasn't any fingerprint dust on it," he said.
KSL-TV surveyed 13 police departments across Salt Lake County and found the idea that investigators dust all cars for prints is another myth. Most departments responded to our survey that fingerprinting is done on a case-by-case basis and in many instances there may not be enough evidence in or on the car to warrant using this technique.
In addition, dozens — sometimes even hundreds — of people can touch a vehicle, making it difficult to isolate a suspect's prints.
The survey also revealed that agencies are not flush with specialized auto theft units that focus strictly on stolen car investigations. Only the Salt Lake City Police Department has a five-officer squad dedicated to solving these crimes.
Murray Police Department reports it has two officers assigned to strictly work on these types of cases. The rest of the departments assign auto theft investigations to detectives and officers who investigate other crimes as well.
The final myth is one that car owners can do something about. It is not impossible to stop a thief.
The biggest deterrent is locking your car and taking the keys with you. Nate said his van had an extra set of keys stored in the glove box, making it possible for the thief to drive off with his vehicle.
A 2010 survey conducted by an auto theft task force in Baltimore showed Nate is not alone. Of 400 stolen cars police had located there, a thief had used the vehicle's keys in 85 percent of the thefts.
In the end, Nate helped police locate his van. He shouldn't have left his laptop in the car, but he was able to use its GPS to track it to a customer at a fast food restaurant in Midvale.
Nate notified the Cottonwood Heights Police Department, and in turn officers were able to get the laptop back and find Nate's van a few miles away. Nate was especially glad when he got his vehicle back in good condition.
He said he checks it every night to make sure it's locked up and the keys aren't left inside.