Friday 18 April 2014

What to do if your bike is stolen

Summary: Unfortunately, recovering a stolen bike is rare but this post collates advice that maximises your limited chances of getting it back and discusses the effectiveness of various, common suggestions. The most important thing you can do is learn the various ways you can prevent future bikes being stolen.

history of missing circles by Camil Tulcan, on Flickr
 Camil Tulcan 

Related Posts:
How to prevent your bike being stolen
What type of bike lock should I buy?

1. Learn and implement the key methods of preventing your bike being stolen
- This includes not spending too much on your bike, always using a quality U lock, locking your bike properly, parking your bike in the most secure area and not leaving it unattended for extended periods. See: How to prevent your bike being stolen

2. Immediately photograph the serial number then email it to yourself, keep it written somewhere and register it online
- All bikes have unique serial numbers and this is almost always stamped into the metal under the bottom bracket - the part at the bottom of the frame which the pedal arms connect. If you do find your stolen bike in a second hand bike shop, locked up somewhere or the police subsequently recover it, the unique serial number will guarantee you'll be able to efficiently get it back. Flip the bike over and take a clear photograph of the serial number. It often wraps around the circular section so you may need two photos.

- Most cyclists who get their bikes stolen do not have a serial number and can't file a police report with it; consequently many recovered bikes are never returned to their owners:
"Police recovered 864 stolen bicycles last year, but only 142 were returned to their owners... 'You see a suspicious guy with a bike, you run the serial number and it comes back negative, so what you have is a guy with an expensive bike,' Friedman said. "What do you arrest him for?"
Inside San Francisco's stolen bike warehouse
- The police generally only help with bike recoveries if you can prove ownership. The best way to do so if with photos of the serial number and the bike. See: I Did Everything Wrong But Still Got My Stolen Bike Back

- Often new bicycle warranties suggest you register the serial number on a website, so you can do this at the same time.

- Different bike serial number registry websites exist for different countries but few are effectively linked up with the local police or have efficient methods to distribute your bikes details to local cyclists if it is stolen. An exception is Project 529 in the USA which is making excellent efforts to provide an effective service.

My bike serial numbers are:
- Fuji Declaration: ICFJ11F25088
- Cell Otway 2.0: AP14300887
- XDS Adult Street: X14S04372

3. Take a photo of the bike whenever its appearance changes significantly
- After its stolen, another key to getting it back is a photo that matches as exactly as possible. If you modify the bike or if a photo of a very similar bike is not going to be easy to find, you'll need to take a few decent photos yourself. There may also be a distinctive feature or mark on your bike worth taking a photo of.

- After your bike is stolen, if you don't have a photo, get a photo of a similar bike from the internet. Posting information about a stolen bike without a useful photo is pointless. Note any differences between the photo and your actual bike in the description.

4. Have a noticeable change on your bike that you will be able to recognise in a typical for sale photo
- A scratch or defect in the frame or handle bars that can't be easily concealed is best. Anything that can be removed or easily fixed is not as useful. Take a photo of the recognisable marking. If you then do see a similar bike on a classified site you will be able to more easily identify your bike and also prove it is yours.

5. Straight after you discover it stolen ask around in the immediate area
- The chances of recovering a stolen bike are slim, so if there may be people who witnessed who took your bike, when and how, this could at least give you something to go on. Some thieves are likely to try and sell it immediately for cash on the street or at a second hand bike shop; in this case you'll need to act very fast.

6. Post an accurate description, photo, the serial number, your contact details and details of the theft at pawn shops and at likely reselling locations
- Depending on your city the common, physical locations for reselling stolen bikes may be pawn shops, second hand shops, certain markets and particular parks/streets. Quickly assemble the key details and a photo on a single page and email it to the shops. In Australia, Cash Converters (the major pawn shop franchise) will immediately forward such emails to all of its locations in the state.

- For shops/locations you can't cover via email, print out posters and hang them up or distribute them at these locations. Make sure your name, phone number and email are distributed too.

7. Post an accurate description, photo, the serial number and details of the theft on stolen bike sites and forums
- The few stolen bikes that are recovered are often due to other cyclists having seen details of a unique stolen bike and then seeing it somewhere around town and tipping off the owner. Often the stolen bike is locked up somewhere and you may be able to directly take it back or have it secured while the police are contacted.

- The best site for USA cyclists is Project 529 which provides an extremely well designed and connected service for registering bike serial numbers, checking them for stolen bikes and notifying other local users if your bike is stolen. It has a great mobile app too.

Project 529: Missing bikes

- Another very good and popular site for North America is Bike Index.

- Other stolen bike sites include: > Stolen Bikes in Australia; > Bike Shepherd; > myBikeNumber
- Example: My stolen Fuji Declaration was posted on: Bike Shepherd and Bicycle Network Forums.

- Popular Australian Bike Forums to report stolen bikes: > Bicycle Network Forums - Buy, Sell, Swap; > BNA - Australian Cycling Forums - Stolen Bikes

My stolen Fuji Declaration posted on Bike Shepherd

8. If the value of the bike justifies it, advertise a reward (e.g. 20 - 60% of the replacement cost)
- If you wish to maximise your chances of recovering your bike, advertise a significant reward - up to 60% of the replacement cost. Advertise on a poster in the location it was stolen and also online. Apart from attracting greater assistance from others looking out for it, the thief may also be tempted to dispose of it this way. It will be hard to prove the person tipping you off is connected to its theft but you could get your bike back for much less than it will cost to replace it. Remember that usually your bike will also be worth a lot more to you than a thief.

9. Check online classified websites and purpose-built "stolen bike finder" sites
- Many stolen bikes are now sold online so monitor the most popular ones in your city immediately. In Australia, GumtreeeBay, Trading Post and Bike Exchange are the main online classified sites. Set up email alerts on these sites so you are notified of new posts selling bikes similar to yours.

- Also try stolen bike finder sites for your city/country. In Australia, try: Find That Bike

- If you find what seems like your bike online, ask for a quick meetup, test ride and sale. With the assistance of friends (and the police if necessary) you should be able to ascertain if the bike is yours (particularly if you have the serial number) and recover it.

10. Report it to the local police station especially if you have the serial number
- In most cities the police are ineffective at recovering stolen bikes and will make little or no effort to specifically recover your bike. However, if you have the serial number it is worth reporting it as it should at least end up in their stolen property database. Occasionally the police will recover multiple stolen bikes (typically in batches from catching a large scale thief) and they will look up the serial numbers in their database. Hence, you may receive back your stolen bike months or years later.

- If you have bike theft insurance you'll need to file a police report to make a claim.

11. Check tips on how the successfully recovered bikes were found
- Some websites and forums provide specific details of how bikes were recovered; this can be useful information to apply yourself. See: Bike Shepherd - Recovered bikes

12. Check if your city has a recovered bikes website/process or police auction
- Some city police departments have web pages listing photos of recovered bikes. Hence, even if you don't have the serial number you may be able to find it. See: San Franciso Park Station: Recovered bikes

- Alternatively the police or city council may have a warehouse where recovered bikes are stored for a period. Contact them to ask if there is a way to check if your bicycle has been recovered.

- Finally, after a set period (in Victoria it is 3 months) goods are auctioned off. If you have the serial number it may still be possible to recover your bike from the auction agent. In Australia the police auction agents can be found here.

13. Don't wait too long to replace your bike; protect your next bike properly
- Less than 9% of bikes reported to police in Melbourne are recovered (see Further Info here). Moreover, the actual rate is much lower as many bike thefts aren't reported to police, particularly as the victim often doesn't have the bike serial number. Hence, you shouldn't hold out too long hoping for your bike to turn up. I waited 4 weeks to buy a new bike; in hindsight, that was too long given my bike cost only $380.

- If you rely on your bike for transport then, given the benefits of cycling, the biggest loss from a stolen bike will be the costs of not riding any more. So if you can afford to replace your bike don't wait more than a couple of weeks to do so. The chance of you getting your stolen bike back in the subsequent few weeks or even months are minimal. So it's best to move on and start protecting your new bike from theft as much as possible.

- If you can't afford to replace your bike immediately with a new bike, consider a second hand bike or borrowing a spare bike from a friend till you can afford to replace it. Giving up on cycling for transport is a much worse outcome.

14. Other methods: Pulse Tags, Datadot, GPS Trackers, Licence engraving, etc.
- These other methods are rarely worthwhile or effective:
(a) Pulse Tags can be removed from your bike and virtually no-one scans them looking for stolen bikes.
(b) Datadot stickers may well be checked if police recover a stolen bike but have a cost ($60) and involve extra effort. Subaru owners only pay $10.
(c) GPS Trackers may well work but require significant cost and effort which is better invested in protecting your bike. If you have a really expensive bike then the cost and effort may be justified.
(d) If the police offer a free engraving of your driver's licence number into the frame this can't hurt. It may help you get your bike back if the police recover it.

Further Info:
Bike Index
> Protect your bike
> What to do if your bike is stolen
> Information about bicycle serial numbers
> Bike shop signup

BNA Forums: Tracking Stolen Bikes and preventing theft

Ride On: Stop, thief!

Bike Radar: Guide to recovering a stolen bike

Safe Bikes (San Francisco)