What is the best way to ensure a stolen bike gets returned to its rightful owner? An expert weighs in.
It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and 28 year-old Larry Bietzel was waiting for his Uber to arrive. It had just snowed heavily, so Bietzel was surprised to see an unkempt, staggering man appear out of seemingly nowhere, dragging a Felt triathlon bike with flat tires through the snow.
“Nice bike,” he said.
“My grandma gave it to me. Want to buy it? 50 bucks.”
For Bietzel, a touring cyclist who has completed a cross-national ride, too many red flags went up to ignore: “Based on the way he was dressed and the way he sounded, it was clear he was taking the wrong type of drugs to be the next Lance Armstrong.”
Bietzel bought the bike and wedged it into the trunk of his Uber. When he got home, he immediately posted information about the bike on a forum within the online community Reddit. Within 12 hours, Bietzel’s post went viral and a verified owner of the bike was located.
It’s a feel-good story, and for good reason: An estimated two million bikes are stolen annually in North America, and the majority of those bikes are never returned to their owners. For many victims, the loss is not only financial, but sentimental. Bietzel, for example, was compelled to buy the bike because he had recently experienced the theft of his own. He knew the Felt bike belonged to someone else, and he knew exactly how that person felt.
Still, experts caution against taking matters into their own hands. Though it’s a natural impulse to want to right the wrongs, most stories like Bietzel’s don’t have a happy ending. Vigilante justice backfires more often than not, says J Allard, CEO of bike recovery service 529 Garage.
“You’ll hear and see on forums on the Internet from enraged victims how eager many of them are to take matters into their own hands,” says Allard “But not only do most bike thieves have less to lose than the victim, and are armed at least with dangerous tools, victims of theft can also be injured or killed when engaging non-thieves of suspicion.”
Allard points to several incidents in recent years where bike thieves, when confronted by vigilantes, committed assault and even murder. “We never recommend taking direct action,” says Allred. “The police are fully trained to confront suspects appropriately. Angry bike theft victims are not.”
A big reason why vigilante justice is so common in cycling communities is that police officers won’t always treat a stolen bike with urgency. As far as crime goes, bike theft is pretty low on the list of priorities for most law enforcement departments. So what is the best way to ensure a stolen bike gets returned to its rightful owner? Allard’s advice:
Always report a stolen bike to the police. Approximately one in five bike thefts are actually reported to the police, says Allard. “[Reporting] lets the police know what crimes are happening in their community, and they adjust their priorities based on reports.” To increase your odds of finding your bike, provide a serial number or registry information with a database like 529 Garage, which is searchable by law enforcement agencies across North America.
Publish to social media. Posting a photo of your stolen bike on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other outlets is the most effective way to spread the word to the cycling community. Avoid posting on sites like Craigslist, which is most likely to tip off a thief. “If they know you’re looking for the bike, they will probably swap it with another fence in another community, sit on it for six months and relist it, or part it out and chuck the frame in the river.”
Alert local bike mechanics. Print a paper with a photo and details of your bike, and distribute to the shops. “A lot of higher-end bikes will sell on eBay, and the thieves will use local bike shops to help them box the bike. We’ve caught a lot of bikes this way,” says Allard.
Think like a thief. “The majority of bikes get listed on online reseller sites like craigslist, eBay, Kajiji, OfferUp and LetGo. Scan those listings, and not just in your immediate area. Many times bikes are quickly sold to fences who are savvy enough to list them 50-100 miles outside of where they were stolen to avoid detection. If you find your bike on one of these sites, screenshot all of the details (in the event that it gets taken down) for law enforcement. Also, expect typos in the listing – another ploy to avoid automated detection. A “Fuji” quickly becomes a “Fiji”. “Blue” may become “Aqua”, components might be mis-listed (“Red” might become “Force”). Stock photos will often replace a distinct looking bike.”
Avoid setting up a solo sting. If a stolen bike is spotted either online or in person, the police should be contacted to confront the seller and determine ownership. Having a police report on file will help greatly with this process. “So long as you can prove ownership, the matter is generally settled right there,” says Allard. “If ownership is ambiguous, they will probably seize the bike and let the first person that can prove it collect it from the property room.”