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Thieves targeting storage units, getting better at covering up tracks

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SALT LAKE CITY — "It's just kind of a shock. It's like, 'What happened here?' Or it's like, 'I can't believe this,' " said Brad Ruprecht, recalling the sickening realization his possessions had been stolen.

Thieves looking for treasure to loot have been targeting storage units on Salt Lake County's east side. Police say break-ins at these places have reached a peak, and the criminals behind them are getting better and better at covering their tracks. A KSL News investigation revealed how easy it can be to get in, and the tactics make it nearly impossible to prove a crime ever happened.

Last month, Ruprecht was renting a large indoor storage unit on Salt Lake County's east side. He and his fiancee stopped in one Sunday to pick up some things. Everything seemed normal: The door was down, the two-disc padlocks recommended by the storage facility were in place. But then he looked inside.

"It looked like it was ransacked. Everything was knocked over, tipped over and the majority of everything was gone," he said.

He added, "You just don't expect it coming to your storage unit, especially when the doors are closed and the locks are still on it."

Thieves had broken in and gotten out, leaving no clues as to how they did it. Ruprecht felt violated but took some comfort in knowing he'd bought an insurance policy on the unit. He called to submit a claim, confident it would cover any loss.

He was wrong.

"If you don't have any way to prove it that's not visibly evident, then you're not covered," he said.

Sure enough, it says right in the policy that a burglary "must be evidenced by visible signs of forced entry." No damage to his locks or unit door meant he wasn't covered.

So, how did the thieves get in to Ruprecht's unit? Police can't say for sure. One possibility: They picked the locks, a skill anyone can learn online.

Hundreds of Internet videos show the best ways to pick open virtually any type of lock. Some were so easy to crack, a 6-year-old on YouTube could do it. It looked simple enough, so KSL bought a set of picks and tried it out. However, after several hours, only one lock opened — proving it takes a bit of practice to master the skill.

Things changed with a soda can. These cans can be turned into simple tools called shims. They pop U-shaped locks — commonly used on things such as gates and storage shed doors — in just seconds.

Police say some criminals do take the time to master the art of lock picking, but most others simply cut their way in and focus on covering their tracks.

"They're not just cutting them and dropping the lock on the ground and running away with your stuff. They're cutting them, placing them back on the storage unit in such a way that it doesn't look like anybody's gotten in," said Unified Police detective Levi Hughes.

He said this tactic could conceal the crime for weeks, months — even years, if no one checks the unit. That means by the time a burglary like Brad Ruprecht's is discovered, the bad guys are long gone.

There are a few things you can do to lower the likelihood of a storage unit burglary:

Check your unit often

Keep your most valuable items with you — not in a storage unit.

Research a more secure padlock.

Ask for a unit in an area of the facility that gets a lot of traffic throughout the day.

Ask for a unit in view of a security camera.

If a burglary happens:

Call the police.

Call your storage insurance company, and report the crime.

If storage insurance does not cover the break-in, check your homeowner's or home renter's insurance policy. It may include coverage for offsite storage of property or equipment.

Hughes says these things could help you protect yourself against break-ins, but he warns that nothing is foolproof.

He says, "When there's a criminal who wants your stuff, and he's actively trying to get it, he may just find a way."

Email: iteam@ksl.com, lprichard@ksl.com;