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SALT LAKE CITY — Stolen vehicles are a problem that practically every city in Utah deals with.
Sometimes the vehicles are recovered damaged at the end of a high-speed chase. Sometimes they are found abandoned in the Jordan River. And sometimes a person's car is recovered with seemingly no harm done to it at all.
But even if physical damage isn't visible, police are warning owners to get their vehicles checked for possible drug residue and then have them professionally cleaned.
"Most of the time a car is stolen it is by someone who has a drug habit or is involved in that underworld. That's just the type of people who steal cars," said Unified Police Lt. Lex Bell.
"They will take the car and they will use it for their illegal activities, committing crimes. And sometimes they will live in the car for a period of time, and that means they are using drugs in the car. You're risking exposure after you get your car back. You need to get it cleaned," added Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking.
According to the 2014 Crime in Utah report compiled by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification, a vehicle is stolen in Utah approximately every 82 minutes. More than 6,300 motor vehicle thefts were reported in Utah during 2014, according to the bureau's report.
They will take the car and they will use it for their illegal activities, committing crimes. And sometimes they will live in the car for a period of time, and that means they are using drugs in the car. You're risking exposure after you get your car back. You need to get it cleaned.
–Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking.
Earlier this year, Salt Lake police reported 72 cars stolen from their city in just a span of 2 ½ weeks, and 202 were stolen in Salt Lake City from Dec. 4, 2015 to Jan. 3, 2016.
While police will go through a person's stolen car after it is recovered to look for evidence related to the crime, what they won't do is clean the vehicle before returning it to the owner.
"We're not a cleaning service. Unfortunately, you're going to get the car back in the condition we find it. We're going to take what we need out of it and anything that doesn't belong to you. Your responsibility will be to clean that car," Bell said.
Wilking added that police departments also do not test vehicles after they are recovered for levels of drug residue.
Based on the current heroin epidemic facing America, he said there's a good chance that whoever steals a car will also smoke heroin or methamphetamine while using it.
"We do have a drug problem. These drug users commit more crimes to fuel their habit. And part of that is using the drugs. And if they have your car, they'll do it in your car," he said.
Vapor from methamphetamine, for example, can cling to surfaces and form into crystals, experts say. Those who come in contact with such surfaces could ingest the meth through their skin or other ways.
When a stolen car is recovered and returned to an owner, Bell suggests the owner first, while wearing a pair of gloves, give the car a good visual inspection to make sure police detectives haven't missed anything.
"Don't reach your hand into places you can't see," he advised.
Next, use a strong vacuum to go through the car before wiping it down with something that will kill bacteria. Then, get it inspected. Bell said while police aren't finding many meth labs fully constructed inside stolen vehicles, they are finding people use meth and other drugs inside them.
The Utah Department of Health has a list of certified decontamination specialists who can be used if a person suspects drug contamination in their vehicle.