Bike Theft Prevention: What Can We Really Do?

If we’re all forced to ride beaters, then the bike terrorists have won.

The above quote is a comment I made in a recent Google+ discussion in regards to an article about bike theft prevention. As we chatted about what to do about this ongoing problem, one commenter said that the write-up “missed the biggest [solution]: don’t have a bike that’s worth stealing. Or rather, don’t have the bike with the highest value-to-securely-locked ratio.”

This is certainly one approach to tackling this dilemma, but it’s definitely not my favorite by any means. When I lived in New York City, the bike theft capital of the world, I had 13 bikes stolen in 13 years. The first theft was the most painful. I was a freshman at NYU and had just acquired my most expensive purchase-to-date: a $300 Trek hybrid for commuting in the city. There was a security guard in the lobby and an indoor bike rack in the basement, so I felt it was safe to leave it there for several hours. Plus I was new to the city and hadn’t yet experienced the relentless ruthlessness of bike thieves in the Big Apple. I locked up my bike to the rack with a thin cable lock and headed off to class. When I returned an hour later, it was gone — and with it, my naïveté about the safety of my personal possessions had vanished as well.

From that point on, I rode mostly beaters for my remaining years in the city. It didn’t matter, however, how ugly or rusted they were or if they were wrapped in old tubes. I had a $30 bike stolen within 20 minutes in Greenwich Village when I went in for a job interview at a video store. Another one was locked with a thick, hardened steel Kryptonite chain — worth twice the cost of the bike — but the thief made off with my crappy bike anyway. And yet another was secured to the metal gates that surrounded the entrance of a police station in the West Village — that too disappeared. I realized that if the thief wanted my bike, he/she would take it if it was left outside. Leaving it unattended — even locked — was basically a death sentence for my bicycle.

I’ve now reached a point in my life where I can afford nicer bikes and don’t want to ride a bicycle that I’ve chosen merely because it’s a ‘deterrent’ — especially when it’s not guaranteed to always be successful in that role. And with the recent thefts and recoveries of my mountain bike and wheelset, it’s a problem that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately. I suppose I’ve finally reached my Howard Beale breaking point, where “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

I’m definitely not alone in ruminating on this problem. One San Francisco writer never found his stolen Fuji touring bicycle, but the incident led him to research why it’s such a pervasive problem in the city. The Priceonomics blog explored the questions, “What is the economic incentive for bike thieves that underpins the pervasiveness of bike theft? Is this actually an efficient way for criminals to make money?” (The post also spawned a lively discussion here. And for some criminals, perhaps the answer is yes.)

So what are our options? I decided to conduct some of my own research and have compiled the following list of potential solutions that I’ve gleaned from articles, forums and company websites.

Registration with Local Cycling Organizations

There are many bike registries available online, and The National Bike Registry (paid service) and (free service) are two that seem to be the most popular. But I hadn’t heard of these sites until after I began my research, and I wonder how effective they really are. There appears to be quite a lot of controversy regarding bike registration with government entities, and inconsistent enforcement and participation subsequently results in an ineffective system.

What if bike owners were encouraged to register their bikes with their local cycling organizations (for example, the San Francisco Bike Coalition or the East Bay Bike Coalition)? Perhaps each yearly membership could include registration, and the organizations would be responsible for maintaining the database of serial numbers. The numbers could also be printed on their registration cards so they’d be easily accessible in members’ wallets. Groups could also have registration drives at events — such as “Bike To Work Day” — to encourage owners to become members and remind them to register their bikes. Individuals would see this as another benefit to their membership, and the organizations would be offering a useful service to their communities. But I think the main value would be in that it would give folks that extra nudge to document their serial numbers. Yes, people can certainly do this on their own. But how many people actually get around to thinking about their serial numbers until it’s too late? Far too many. If your local cycling advocacy groups are continually urging you to register and help you with the process, it may help procrastinators be more proactive with protecting their bikes.

Serial Numbers For Bicycle Listings on Craigslist and eBay

What if companies like Craigslist and eBay required every bicycle listing (frame or complete) to include a serial number? If it’s a custom build, then the seller could include the history of its acquisition. If there were any doubts, the framebuilder could possibly be contacted for verification.

Electronic Serial Numbers

RFID tags (radio frequency identification), smartphone apps and GPS devices have recently emerged as a possible deterrent to bike theft. SPYBike’s GPS system integrates under your headset’s topcap or within your tail light. It will send you a text message if it detects unauthorized movement once you’ve got it activated, then provide you with GPS data. The University of Wisconsin in Madison and this reality show use GPS-enabled devices to create ‘bait bikes’ to help deter thefts. (a great, free online database you should use if you ever get your bike stolen, by the way) is an advocate of using RFID‘s. Kryptonite and Bike Shepherd recently partnered up to offer a similar service using QR coded-stickers and smartphone apps. These electronic ImmobiTags are used in the UK. The questions remain, however: how long can these innovations be effective before thieves catch on, and what if they’re not used widely by the public? Mass adoption is necessary in the case of tags, as with registries; otherwise, people will doubt their value, they won’t act as a deterrent and thus not worth the resources required to maintain such services.

Secure Parking

Ideally, we could all have secure parking indoors near or at our workplaces, restaurants, stores and other places we frequent in our communities. Recent legislation passed this year took a step in the right direction for San Francisco, and BikeLink stations are quite popular and useful. Perhaps more of these BikeStations — like the one in Berkeley and other locations — are needed, even if they’re privately created by an entrepreneur.

Banning Sales of Bicycles at Flea Markets

One commenter on my blog suggested that a petition should be started to ban all sales of bicycles from flea markets. Local police are well aware that they are often the first places thieves will go to sell stolen goods. Should we pre-emptively prohibit the sale of bicycles at places like Laney College, Ashby and Coliseum flea markets?

More Police / Prosecution

One general consensus from the articles that I’ve read is that the police don’t have the resources, nor the interest, in pursuing bike theft. And as evidenced by the Priceonomics blog post, since the risk of getting caught or prosecuted for the crime is very low, the vicious cycle continues. Is there anyway to change this?

What can we do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what we as a community might be able to do to prevent bike theft. Since I’ve started publicizing my own efforts of recovering my stolen goods, I receive at least 1-3 emails a week from people asking me for help. But as I’m only one individual, I’m hoping that we can collectively come up with some solutions to this problem. While we won’t be able to eliminate it entirely, I’m looking forward to the day when there’s less stories about theft and more just about cycling.

My USA Bicycle Wheels Have Been Found!

Steal from me once, shame on you. Steal from me twice, shame on…well, I’d like to say you – meaning you soulless, amoral bike thieves out there – but by not securely locking up the wheels on my Hunter track bike, I enabled some thief to act upon his criminal impulses.

I dropped by Pedalfest last weekend en route to a work-related event. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon and Jack London Square was filled with tons of people and hundreds of bicycles were locked to every spare sign post and rail in sight. I managed to find an empty space at a rack right near Broadway and First Street by the parking lot, then made my way to the festivities.

But here’s what I did wrong – and please, learn from my mistakes:

MISTAKE #1: I should have looked for the free valet parking that was offered by Pedalfest. But since I wasn’t planning on staying long, and it was broad daylight with hundreds of people around, I figured my bicycle would be watched by “the crowd”. Surely someone would say or do something if they saw an individual removing two wheels from a bicycle? If one’s thing’s for certain, people aren’t paying attention – it was, after all, a big fun event with a Whiskeydrome and BMX stunts – or they’re too scared to get involved or just don’t give a shit.

PRO TIP: Use free bike parking if it’s offered at a public event.

MISTAKE #2: At one point I decided to stay a little longer, and I thought, “Maybe I should check on my bike. Or walk around with it. Or move it to bike parking. Nah, it’ll be ok.”  Why did I ignore the little paranoid voice that was nagging me inside my head? Did living in the bike theft capital of the world, New York City, and having multiple bikes stolen there teach me nothing? And didn’t I just recently recover my stolen mountain bike? Insert a big face palm here. But the worst part of this situation was that I hadn’t locked up my wheels – only my frame – so they were two tasty pieces of bait waiting for the bike thief sharks to come and snatch them up.

PRO TIP: Lock up your bicycle properly or risk feeling like a total ass afterwards.

Once I discovered my wheels were stolen, there wasn’t any time to feel sorry for myself. I immediately filed a police report online and spread the word on all of my social media networks. I also set up multiple alerts on Craigslist using and additional ones on eBay. I posted on, the cycling forum I help to moderate. I didn’t register it on, but it’s a great, free helpful database that you should use if you ever have the misfortunate of having your bike stolen.

PRO TIP:’s motto is “Put the internet to work for you.”If you have your bicycle or components stolen, let the world know. And USE THESE ALERTS! If you’re lucky, the thief will be dumb enough to try and sell your stuff online.

I also went to the Laney College flea market on Sunday to see if I could spot my wheels. While I didn’t find my wheelset, I did see quite a few bikes that appeared to be stolen. I took photos of every bicycle I saw and created a Flickr group to be used as a visual database for folks in the Bay Area.

PRO TIP: Be sure to visit your local flea markets to see if your stolen merchandise is there. That’s where my mountain bike was recovered and many items end up circulating through the hands of unscrupulous vendors.

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But as luck would have it – and I consider myself extremely lucky that they were listed online – my wheels turned up on Craigslist a week later: last night, in fact. They’re fairly unique and distinctive, which worked in my favor. My Hunter is built with mostly American-made components, and the Sun Mistral rims of my wheelset were among the last made in the late ’90’s in Indianapolis until they started producing them overseas. My brake had worn down the black rim as they weren’t machined, and they had silver, low-flange track hubs that were radially laced in the front. As soon as I saw the photos, I knew they were my wheels.

I first heard from my friends @alexstar and @longhornsteve on Twitter. “CHECK CRAIGSLIST IMMEDIATELY!” they tweeted. While The Bearded One texted the “seller” in San Leandro (who I’ll refer to as ‘Texter’ from this point on since he insisted on no phone calls), I received an email alert from about a half-hour later. I also received messages from concerned members on who had also seen the listing. TBO exchanged banter with Texter about the wheelset, then arranged to meet him at the San Leandro BART station at 4:30PM today.

text message

I wondered whether Texter could be arrested for possession of stolen property, even if he claimed that he was unaware the wheels were stolen. I crowdsourced answers via social media, and it seemed that while he could be arrested, the case probably wouldn’t stick without proof of his intent. But a Google search of his phone number yielded that he did seem to run a brisk trade in bicycle components. Perhaps I could convince the police to investigate further with this info.

I called the Oakland Police Department and they said it was out of their jurisdiction (which actually wasn’t true, since the crime was committed in Oakland). They told me to call the San Leandro Police Department when I was a ‘block or two away from the BART station’ to see if they would intervene, which to me seemed like a waste of time.

But we had another stroke of luck: TBO has a friend who’s with the San Francisco Police Department and is also a cyclist (I’ll refer to him as Officer Dura-Ace.) Having friends in the police force who are also cyclists is supremely helpful.

PRO TIP: Befriend every cycling cop you see pedaling around the city because they’re just as invested in our beloved pastime as we are, and they will get shit done when a call to your local precinct will not.

Officer DA happened to be off-duty today. Not only did he volunteer to accompany us to our meeting, but he also called up another cycling cop who worked in San Leandro that he rides with on occasion. That police officer called in a favor to his sargeant who oversees the burglary department and asked if he would help us out. The sargeant agreed and we had the police working on our case! (I’ll refer to him as Sargeant Schwinn.)

This afternoon TBO confirmed the meeting via text. Texter later asked to change time from 4:30PM to 3:45PM.

text message 2

Texter wrote back one more time to change the meeting spot to a Wal-Mart in San Leandro.

When Officer Dura-Ace came by our home to drive us over to meet with Sargeant Schwinn and his team, I learned that a mini sting-operation was being organized. TBO and I didn’t have to be involved at all – for our own safety, it turns out. Sargeant Schwinn would pose as TBO and use his phone to coordinate the exact meeting spot in front of the store. We’d be protected in the event that Texter pulled a gun and attempted a robbery.

The plan was to wait until Texter walked up with the wheels. Then Sargeant Schwinn would use a secret signal to alert his police officers to move in and make the arrest. Given all of the evidence I had given them – extensive photos, police report – they had enough cause to arrest him for possession of stolen property. This photo shows the plan they had drawn out on a white board. (Here’s where I felt like I had been teleported into a real-life episode of Breaking Bad.)

white board

Another officer had run the cell phone number and it came up as belonging to a 70-year-old man. “It’s probably some dude living in the basement of his parents’ house,” they joked.

I have to admit I was little skeptical of Sargeant Schwinn’s wardrobe. I asked what he’d be wearing to the meeting, and he replied, “Oh, what I’m wearing now.” Since he was dressed in business casual – “I’ll say I’m a banker,” – I was a bit nervous that Texter would be suspicious of this preppy guy interested in a set of track wheels. But it was brave of him to just go in posing as the buyer. I’m not sure if he was armed and he certainly wasn’t wearing a bullet-proof vest like his colleagues.

We all set out at 3:30PM, and Officer DA, TBO and I waited at a separate parking lot across the street. Time seemed to move slowly and I could barely sit still in the car. Was he going to show up? The police officers warned that sometimes these meetings dragged out over days. The sellers could be flaky and unreliable. Sargeant Schwinn was willing to give Texter until 5:00PM to show up or he’d arrange a meeting for tomorrow.

But just after 4:00PM, we received the happy phone call from Sargeant Schwinn that Texter had been apprehended. Here’s the text message exchange between Texter and the Sgt. just prior to the arrest.

text message 3

We drove over and saw a small group of cops flanking a 17-year-old teenager who had his hands cuffed behind his back. Apparently he had traded a bike frame for my wheels and a pile of other bike parts with some guy he had met earlier at the BART station. Then Texter was planning on flipping his newly acquired stash for cash. He was an enterprising teenager, but sadly, he didn’t even have a car yet. His mom had brought him to Wal-Mart and as we were pulling away, the cops were informing her of everything that went down.

Sargeant Schwinn said later back at the station that given the circumstances, chances were slim that Texter would go to jail. He was going to gather up all of the evidence and refer it back to Oakland PD. “Hopefully they’ll pursue the case, but honestly – they’re dealing with a lot that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with.” So who knows if the original bike thief will ever be caught. Most importantly, though – I have my wheels back! I’ll be back in the USA bike saddle again soon.

Once again, I can’t thank everyone enough who helped me in the recovery process and sent me good wishes this past week. If you ever have your bicycle stolen, please feel free to message me. I’m happy to do what I can to help. And please share this story far and wide with your fellow cyclists to let the bike thieves know that they cannot win!

P.S. I plan to lock up all of my bikes like Fort Knox in the future.

UPDATE: While I originally shared a photo of Texter getting arrested online, per his request I decided to blur out his face in my blog photos. He found his story on my website and texted TBO later this evening. While I don’t think he’s totally innocent in this whole situation, I don’t think he’s the thief – and he doesn’t want the whole world to assume that he is one either. Texter apologized and offered up info about the guy he allegedly bought my wheels from. Sargeant Schwinn also let us know that he’ll be following up on this case personally instead of routing it back to Oakland PD. In any case, he’s still a kid – so I’m hoping he’s more mindful of his business dealings in the future and stays away from shady characters on Craigslist. I’m sure his mom probably grounded him for the next few years, too.

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Spotted in Portland: Stolen De Rosa Track Bike

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Here’s an update on where things stand with my friend Justin’s stolen track bike. We’ve lined up the assistance of Portland Police Officer Joe Santos, who’s also a cyclist, by way of introductions made via of Kenji Sugahara and Lyne Lamoureux.

Jens Voigt’s Army saw the bike yesterday afternoon: “FYI, one of my teammates spotted the bike @ Saraveza in North PDX. Went to get a lock to keep it there but it was gone.” So we know it’s still in the area and the buyer is perhaps unaware that it’s stolen. If you do see this bike on the streets, be sure to explain to the individual that the bike is stolen and that there are dual police reports filed in San Francisco and Portland.

Thanks to Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland and everyone else who has been spreading the word for us. Justin is super appreciative of your efforts and can’t thank you enough.

And lastly, if the original seller who posted the track bike on craigslist is reading this, you’re a real jerk for not replying to Justin’s emails. We hope you look forward to cooperating with the police.

Dear Portland: Let’s Find This Stolen Bike!

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Bike thieves – they are the scourge of the cycling community. I recently had my mountain bike stolen, but it was miraculously recovered in just four days. Putting the word out online really helped with its return, and I’m hoping we can do the same for my friend Justin.

I asked him to email me the story about his missing bike and why it’s so important to him. We can all assign a monetary value to our bicycles, but as you know, its real value isn’t about its price tag.

“Here’s the story of my favorite bike ever. A 1980’s De Rosa Super Prestige pista. I purchased the bike from a gentleman on eBay in February of 2005. It was impeccable. Brand new. Mint. Not sure if the guy ever rode it. I took photos of the unopened box after the UPS man delivered it. Then I took photos of me opening the box, and pulling the frame out. I had never been so enamored with a bike. I was in bike love. All those years of staring at old De Rosa catalogs on the website, and now I had one, a perfect one. Not only was it a De Rosa, it also had an ornate decal celebrating a variety of Eddy Merckx’s victories on the top tube. “Incredible”, I thought. The bike was outfitted with Campagnolo’s C-Record pista group and Cinelli bars and stem. It was 100% Italian. I rode it at Hellyer, I rode it around SF, I rode it everywhere.

In August of 2006, I moved to New York for a short time. Knowing full well that bike theft was rampant in the Big Apple, I opted to leave my De Rosa behind in a storage locker I had rented. I thought, “it’ll be safe here”. Now in New York, with fall approaching, I sent my wife (then girlfriend) to my storage locker to fetch a heavier blanket for me. She called me from the storage locker, “Justin, there are 2 locks on your door, I only have the key for one”. Why were there 2 locks on my storage locker door? “There must be some mixup,” I remember thinking. My wife fetched a Public Storage employee to ask about the additional lock. He explained to her that they put an extra lock on because they found my door open. THEY FOUND MY DOOR OPEN!? WHAT!? Why didn’t anybody call me? She finally gets into my locker, and it’s worst case scenario. Everything is gone. Computer? Gone. Records? Gone. Guitars? Gone. DE ROSA!? GONE. **An important side note to this was that, just a few months earlier, my band, Film School, had our van stolen while on tour in Philadelphia. All of our gear was stolen. One of the basses that the thieves took from my storage locker was the replacement bass from the Film School theft. I’d just been kicked in the nuts…TWICE.**

I frantically called friends, posted on message boards, put up fliers, talked to messengers, filed a police report, complained to Public Storage, posted on craigslist, etc. I was optimistic I’d find it. I thought there was no way a bike of that caliber could stay hidden for that long. I setup an RSS feed to notify me anytime something with the word De Rosa was posted to craigslist. I did the same thing on eBay. I did everything. It never showed up though. It was gone.

Then, a few days ago, a random stranger on the San Francisco Fixed Gear message board sent me a craigslist link. It was a De Rosa, blue, same color as mine. It had the same nicks on that incredible Eddy Merckx decal. It was my bike. I emailed the seller in hopes of buying it back, but received no response. The ad has since been pulled, and the bike is gone, again.”

We’ve already started to put the word out in the Portland cycling community. Several friends of ours who live in Portland have already alerted their colleagues, co-workers and the media. But we also need your help getting this bike back! Share this post, be on the lookout wherever you go — bike shops, flea markets — and online. The De Rosa couldn’t have strayed too far as it was just sold last night via craigslist. We hope with your help that Justin might finally be reunited with his beloved bike.