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Pokemon Go fever is catching in Utah, electrifying fans and worrying law enforcement

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SALT LAKE CITY — Wandering around the lawn of the Salt Lake City-County Building, a father asks his three young children, "How many have you caught?"

Around the grounds of the Utah Capitol, groups of all sizes and ages come and go as the sun sets, their numbers quickly growing to more than 50, all walking and tapping on their phones.

At a downtown fountain, a group of 20-somethings strike up a conversation as a man cruises up alongside them on a longboard.

"Pokemon Go?" he asks.

The group laughs as they nod and display the screens of their smartphones.

These are the scenes playing out across the state as Utahns embrace the app-based game phenomena that allows players to roam their neighborhoods and beyond searching for animated "pocket monsters."

But along with the delighted reviews from aspiring local Pokemon trainers come a myriad of safety concerns and reports of players venturing onto private property in their searches.

A member of a Rose Park neighborhood watch group reported that her neighbors were voicing concerns about Pokemon hunters hopping fences into backyards and making residents nervous because they looked like they were taking pictures of people's houses as they played the game. The group is urging its members to keep an eye out.

As soon as Pokemon Go players download the free app to their smartphones, they can start capturing the creatures in Pokeballs to be trained up and battled against one another.

The "augmented reality" game uses the phones' GPS to track players' movements and requires users to get up and moving to flush out the Pokemon hidden in the world around them as they visit sites designated as "Pokestops" and "Pokemon gyms."

Interactive stops connected to the game dot neighborhoods, fill parks, surround businesses and signal local points of interest like artwork or historic markers.

"It was wild. I've never seen anything quite like it," said Salt Lake resident Emily Johnson, who spent the bulk of the weekend hunting for Pokemon with her husband, sister and brother-in-law. At the University of Utah campus, the group found they were just one of dozens playing the game.

Austin Batchelor relaxed in the shade of the Capitol on Monday afternoon, battling in one of the two gyms that mark the hilltop and amidst the numerous Pokestops that dot the lawn.

A few other players appeared periodically, walking out from nearby buildings, a much calmer scene from what Batchelor witnessed over the weekend as the game exploded in Utah.

"There were literally like 50 people all on the Capitol steps," he said. "There were tons of people, but it was cool because it wasn't just people sitting around in their own little huddles. Everyone was talking and having a good time even though they didn't know each other."

According to Google trends, Utah bounced around as one of the top states for Pokemon Go internet searches Monday. Among Android users, the app has become more popular than Tinder and could potentially surpass Twitter.

But as Utah police see people out playing the game, they worry about users encountering more than just Pokemon.

"People are going into areas where they don't belong. They're not paying attention, and they can become victims of crime," said Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking. "We're hearing about this trend happening across the nation, and it's a concern. The more that we're hearing, the more worried we are about people putting themselves into bad situations.

In Missouri, police say four teenagers headed to a Pokestop and activated a "lure," a feature in the game that lights up the location and attracts Pokemon. Instead of catching creatures in the game, police say the teens robbed other players who showed up to take advantage of the beacon, according to The Associated Press.

Another safety concern is players attempting to catch Pokemon from their cars, either driving distracted or stopping in unsafe places, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce said. Though no official Pokemon-related incidents have yet been reported, UHP troopers have been advised to watch for drivers pulling over on Utah interstates, Royce said.

"If people are stopping on the interstate and looking for Pokemon, we hate to be sticklers on it, but that constitutes a nonemergency stop on the interstate, and we will issue a citation for it," Royce said. "It's not a safe place to be looking for Pokemon."

In St. George, police echoed the advice of many law enforcement agencies, posting safety tips on Facebook for local players to follow: Respect private property, don't go alone, don't play while driving, and look up while walking. The post wished the St. George Pokemon trainers "good luck and a Pikachu."

As a freelance illustrator, Batchelor says he generally avoids video games that can hamper his productivity, but Pokemon Go has the benefit of getting him out of the house. He was out and about Monday with his tablet, intending to also get some work done as he walked around the Capitol and down to Memory Grove.

"I like this one because it helps me get out of the house and walk around instead of just sitting around watching Netflix or something," Batchelor said. "I feel like it helps me be more active. I've walked like 18 miles since it came out."

For Batchelor and other young adults, a big draw of Pokemon is the nostalgia of it, he said. As children they played the card and video games, and watched the television cartoon — all while imagining what life would be like if the world around them was really filled with the fictional creatures.

The characters date back to 1995, shared through the Japanese franchise that spawned an animated series, card game, handheld and console games, and plenty of merchandise. Different Pokemon appear in the game in real-world locations, a prospect that drew Sandy residents Christian Hale and Kyle Ferguson to a body of water in Saratoga Springs on Friday. Literally.

"Oh the places you Pokemon Go," Hale, 18, captioned a photo on Twitter that showed him and Ferguson nearly waist deep in a spring, phones up as they scanned for Pokemon.

"We've both enjoyed past Pokemon games and decided to give this one a try, and it's so fun," Hale said Monday. He recommends the area for a variety of Pokemon.

Though he is enjoying the game, Batchelor wonders how long the hype will last before participation fizzles.

Johnson said she hopes Pokemon Go is here to stay.

"I hope this isn't a fad," Johnson said. "I love watching neighborhood businesses capitalize on lures and gyms. … And I love being out in my neighborhood, watching strangers engage in this weird augmented reality experience together."

* * *

Tips from police on playing Pokemon Go

• Respect private property. Just because a Pokemon is there doesn't mean you should be.

• Don't hunt Pokemon alone. Be aware of your surrounding as you approach places that criminals could use as targets.

• Don't play Pokemon Go while driving.

• Remember to look up while walking and playing.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero