Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It's the most wonderful time of year. But it's also when certain crimes of opportunity tend to spike in Salt Lake County.
Of all the people on your list to buy presents for, a thief probably isn't one of them. So don't give burglars a gift by forgetting to lock your car and hide your belongings, Unified police told the KSL Investigators.
"They're looking for an easy target," Unified detective Doug Lambert said.
And while you might do most of your shopping online, chances are you'll be running out for holiday errands at some point.
Lambert and his colleagues are concerned about a few areas in particular that they've identified as hot spots for this sort of crime.
The detective took us to The Shops at Fort Union in Midvale — one of the top destinations for car prowlers so far this year – according to the department's crime mapping. The sprawling strip mall's enormous parking lots make it easy for thieves to go undetected, Lambert said.
"Because it's such a densely packed parking lot, criminals would see that as, 'I could blend in in broad daylight, and no one would ever know,'" Lambert said.
He demonstrated just how easy it is to fly under the radar while looking for the right opportunity. It only took him a few minutes to spot something a prowler might want: a colorful backpack sitting on the floor of an SUV in plain sight.
There may be nothing of value in a backpack, but crooks will still grab this sort of bag so they can stash other items inside, Lambert said.
When he investigates these crimes, surveillance video often points him to potential suspects, he said. When he interviews them, many tell him the same thing, illuminating just how strong a grip substance abuse can have on people with addictions and others around them.
"The response is, 'I have a habit. I needed to get my fix, so I needed something to either trade for property or drugs,'" Lambert said. "When somebody is dopesick, they just want something of value quickly so that they can get their fix."
On a recent Tuesday, the detective pulled on door handles of several cars parked outside Walmart. In a matter of minutes, he found one left unlocked.
"That easy," Lambert said as he held the door open.
Lucky for the car's owner, Lambert and the KSL Investigators weren't trying to steal anything.
But it's likely no one would have noticed if we were, said Sgt. Melody Cutler.
"If you see somebody walking through a parking lot and just open a car door, you don't even think twice about it," Cutler said.
The crimes are predictable, she added. The rate often climbs in the winter. But the top destinations change from year to year.
Last year, one section of Millcreek — near the 3900 South and State intersection — saw the worst of it. This year, a stretch near 7200 South and State Street is seeing the most action, followed by the nearby shopping center Lambert brought us to.
But car prowlers can strike anywhere, Cutler noted.
"Just because you're not in a hotspot doesn't mean it's not going to happen," she said.
The good news: The data shows that car burglaries overall are down this year.
And while Dec. 2020 brought on the kind of spike police typically expect during the holidays, the numbers trended down in the winter months last year.
So how can you make sure you don't become a victim? Is it as simple as making sure your car is less attractive than the one next to it?
"That's exactly it," Lambert said.
Double-check that you've locked your doors, he said. Don't keep anything of value in your vehicle. And if you have to leave a bag or other belongings inside, make sure they're out of sight.
Whatever you do, don't leave a gun in your car. All too often, firearms are stolen and end up in the wrong hands Lambert and Cutler said.
Have you experienced something you think just isn't right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at email@example.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.