Bicycle Theft

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Keeping & Recovering your Bike

See also the Austin Chronicle’s article on bike theft. However, note that contrary to what the article implies, Critical Mass is still around, and has existed continuously since its local inception in Oct. ’93.

Locks our readers recommend

I’m now using what I saw many people using in Amsterdam last time I was there. I figure Holland is a good litmus test since bike theft is a real problem there and defeating locks is practically a national past-time. The lock is a 10mm hardened chain (available from Cothron’s etc.) and a nifty lock made by a company in Italy called “Viro.” I ordered their 4230 model from a store in Canada called Canaropa. The enclosed design of the lock and lack of leverage all around makes it very unlikely someone would go after it with any kind of saw, crowbar, hammer, drill or bolt cutters…. or I guess a bic pen for that matter.

The caveat is: this solution is expensive (~$90) and heavy (~6lbs). But for me, when I depend on my bike for daily transportation, it isn’t overkill. I haven’t really noticed the extra weight and I got a great deal on a used chain (the majority of the cost). – Travis Weller, Oct. 2004

I can’t deal with carrying that much extra weight around. I use a Specialized Hard Lock Wrapper (the thick version) for daytime lockups and a Kryptonite New Yorker for overnight. Since I almost always lock up my bike on the bike rack at home, I just leave the New Yorker lock there, attached to the bike rack all the time. The Hard Lock Wrapper comes with a plastic holder which allows you to conveniently attach it to the frame just above the water bottle holder and is extremely light weight (the core is Kevlar rather than steel, which is actually harder to cut through using standard bolt cutters). This lock – the Wrapper – also did fairly well in the Bicycling magazine theft test, where they hired a former professional bike thief to try and get through various bike locks using only tools he could carry with him in a bicycle messenger bag. This guy was able to get through most U-locks in 7-15 seconds. The HLW took him 37 seconds, and the only lock he was unable to defeat was the New Yorker. – Patrick Goetz, Oct. 2004

Keeping your bike from getting stolen

  1. Get a U-lock. The overwhelming majority of stolen bikes were locked with a cable or chain, or weren’t locked at all. The cheapest U-lock is better than the best chain. Locally, Home Depot carries entry-level U-locks for around $14. Online, you can get U-locks from Bike Nashbar for $9. Higher quality locks are available at bike shops and sell for $25-80. Remember, a bike being unlocked is a bigger factor in whether it gets stolen than how expensive the bike is.
  2. USE your U-lock. Of course this sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t count how many people (myself included) who have lost bikes that they left unlocked “just for a minute”. I once had a bike stolen from my front porch that was only out there for twenty minutes after I got home. Lock your bike religiously. If you’re at a store and there’s nothing to lock your bike to, at the very least lock your bike to itself. (That is, lock the frame to a wheel.) That way, someone can’t ride off ON your bike (although they could still throw it in the back of a truck and drive off with it).
  3. Put the U-lock through the frame, not just through a wheel. If you lock just a wheel, a thief will simply remove the wheel and walk away with your bike frame. For best protection, put the lock through BOTH the frame and the front wheel when locking your bike to something.
  4. Be careful about the ends of bike racks. Some bike parking racks are constructed with simple nuts and bolts on the ends. If you park your bike on the end of one of these racks, a thief could disassemble the end of the bike rack with a wrench, and slide your bike off it. By the same token, also check to make sure that the part of the rack you’re locking to is solid and not broken at the top or bottom.
  5. Don’t park on traffic signs overnight. A determined thief can take the sign off the top of the pole, and then slide your bike over the pole.
  6. Don’t park your bike overnight in public if you can avoid it.
  7. If your bike is expensive and you have to leave your bike parked in public overnight or for a long time, consider getting a second, less expensive “beater bike” for those times. That way it’ll be less likely to be stolen, and if it is, you won’t be quite so heartbroken. Note, though, that a poorly-locked cheap bike is often a bigger target than a well-locked expensive bike. (The smallest target is a well-locked cheap bike, of course.)
  8. Paint over expensive brand names or scratch them off. Simply adding stickers won’t fool a thief into thinking your bike is old or low quality (although it may make it easier to identify if it IS stolen).

Making it easier to get your bike back if it IS stolen

  1. If your bike is expensive enough to have a serial number, write it down now.
  2. Whether your bike has its own serial number, add your own numbers to it as well. Engrave your state ID number into two places on the frame, such as under the bottom bracket and on the down tube. You can get a cheap engraver at a hardware store. The reason you’re engraving into two places is because if a thief is smart enough to try to file your numbers off, he might NOT be smart enough to think that there could be a second set of numbers after he’s found the first.Some local and campus police departments will stamp your ID number onto your bike for free, and put a registration sticker on the down tube. Sure, the registration sticker would be easy for a thief to remove, but the point is that when thieves even SEE the registration sticker, they may avoid stealing your bike because they know that it’s registered and has your ID number stamped into it, so it’ll be harder to sell.Note that some cyclists are wary about having their bikes registered, because then if they get harassed by the police for any reason, the police could ID them with the state ID # etched into their bike.
  3. Get free insurance with a U-lock.  Most U-locks that cost $30 or more come with a guarantee that works like insurance: If your bike is locked properly and gets stolen anyway, the lock company will pay you for the loss of your bike.
  4. Register with the National Bike Registry.  This is a database run by a private company, but police nationwide use it to try to find stolen bikes.  Registration is just $10.
  5. Take a good picture of your bike for your files.

Recovering a Stolen Bike

  1. Call the police and file a report. If your bike didn’t have your ID # on it, it’s extremely unlikely that they’re going to find your bike. But if you’re going to try to collect on a U-lock maker’s guarantee, they’ll require that you filed a report with the police. Also, you may be able to look through the police warehouse of confiscated bikes to see if yours is among them.
  2. If your bike was stolen from a college campus, call the campus police and file a report. Campus police are sometimes a lot more actively involved in recovering stolen bikes than the local police.
  3. Go to pawn shops in your area and let them know your bike has been stolen. Give them the registration # and a copy of the photo.
  4. Notify local bike shops who buy used bikes.
  5. If you got the insurance that came with your U-lock, file a claim with the lock company.
  6. Report the theft to the Stolen Bicycle Registry. This is a database of stolen bikes maintained by an individual (not by the police).
  7. When buying a used bike, check the bottom bracket to see if it’s registered, and if so, make sure it matches the ID of the person trying to sell you the bike. If you suspect the bike may be stolen, notify the police. Yeah, this doesn’t help YOU get your stolen bike back, but it could help someone ELSE. And what good is it going to do for YOUR bike to be registered if nobody bothers to look for the registration number when buying?

That’s it, there ain’t no more

Everything that’s listed above is all I can tell you about bike theft and recovery. Don’t bother letting me know about your stolen bike, there’s nothing I can do about it. If you came to this page because your bike was stolen and you want to list it here, let me ask you something: Did you ever come to this page before to look at the list of other peoples’ stolen bikes to see if you could help in locating them? Didn’t think so. So you’ll see why it’s unlikely that anybody is going to browse this page to try to help find your bike.  Sorry

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