Monday, October 18, 2010

Preventing Bike Theft

I cannot remember how many times I've heard about a friend's or coworker's bicycle being stolen or something (wheels, saddle, etc) getting stolen from their bike. Either way, it sucks.

The sad fact is that it, most likely, could have been prevented. There are a number of ways that a bike can get stolen:

  1. you didn't lock it. If this is the case, then you fucking deserved to get your bike stolen;
  2. locked it, but lock was cut.

Okay, if some asshole broke into your house and stole your bike - and you didn't lock your bike because it was inside your home - you can't really take any blame for this.

But, a lot of bike theft victims bought a cheap piece of shit lock, like an ordinary chain with an ordinary padlock or a cable lock. These are the kinds of people who seem to think that any lock will deter most thieves and these people are wrong. While even a cheap lock will deter the casual bike thief, the guys that steal a bike on impulse, the professional or semi-professional thief often carries a pair of bolt cutters with them to quickly help themselves to your bike. So, a good U-lock from either Kryptonite or OnGuard will keep most thieves at-bay.

If you have a bike with quick releases on the wheels or bike seat, you will want to seriously consider getting a set of Pinhead Locking Skewers. I recommend Pinhead over Delta Hublox, since Pinhead skewers unlock with a special key, while Dublox uses an ordinary hexwrench. While Dublox may deter somebody without tools, it won't stop a professional.

What these do is replace the skewer of your quick release with one that you can only tighten or loosen with a special key provided with the set. If you, or some one else, wants to remove the wheel or seat from the bike, you can't do it without the key. So, even if the bike gets stolen, they cannot take any of the secured components off and the very first time that a tire goes flat, the entire bike becomes useless to them. So, even though you don't have the bike anymore, they can't ride it or even remove parts from it.

While no system is perfect and somebody will eventually find a way around any locking device, it's always best to make the thieves work that much harder if they want to take your bike or bike parts from you.

If you have a bike that uses ordinary nuts and bolts to secure the wheels, my best advice is to use a good quality U-lock or switch-out the wheels with ones that use quick releases and buy the locking skewers.

If your seatpost cannot accommodate a locking skewer, here's how you can secure your seat to the frame using an old bicycle chain:
First, you're going to need

  • an old bike chain, 
  • an old bike tube, 
  • a chain tool, 
  • a couple of zip-ties and 
  • some electrical tape.
  1. measure-out how high you want your seat to be elevated and secure it in-place;
  2. Open a link in the chain with the bike tool;
  3. Thread the chain through the underside of the seat where there should be some metal bars that provide the shape of your seat;
  4. Loop the chain through your bike frame in the upside down V between your seatpost stay and the rear part of the frame directly above the rear wheel;
  5. Hold the loose end together with a portion of your chain that gives as little slack as possible. This should form a complete loop;
  6. Remove the extra portion of the chain that you won't be using by using the bike tool, making sure to have the ends matching so that you can resecure the chain into a loop;
  7. Now, take the chain and put a bit of oil on it to give it some protection from rust;
  8. Cut-off a portion of the bike tube to completely cover the chain with a bit of extra tube to cover the ends;
  9. Put the chain into the tube and loop it through the seat frame and bike frame;
  10. Using your bike tool, rejoin the two ends of the chain;
  11. Cover the chain with the bike tube and tape it closed with electrical tape.
  12. to keep this assembly from flapping-around, wrap the zip-ties around the chain holding your seat to the frame. You could use the electrical tape for this, but zip-ties are better.
Alternatively, you could simply use a cable lock for this sort of thing. But, my guess is that a bike chain would be harder to cut with bolt cutters. 

This will probably look like crap, but a bike chain isn't easy to cut, since it takes a lot of stress as you pedal your bike. So, the chain will give some protection from a thief who will come and just casually unscrew the quick releases that most people have on their seat posts. I suggest getting an old mountain bike chain, since they are the toughest chains out there. If you don't have an extra chain or old tube, ask a bike shop if they have some old ones laying-around that they can let you have. Something like this would need bolt cutters or a chain tool to take off and it would take a bit of time and frustration on the part of most thieves and will give your seat a better chance of still being there when you return than if you had nothing. Most of the time, simply securing your seat with an ordinary bolt is enough, as thieves prefer the ones with quick releases, since they can be switched from one bike to another with little effort.

Okay, here's a question a lot of people ask:

Where Do Stolen Bikes Go?

Once the bike gets stolen, there are a number of things that can happen to it. The whole bike may be kept by the thief to ride on and they'll usually ride it for awhile and then sell it to somebody, either for cash or drugs. However, there are some thieves that steal bikes specifically to sell them to some one and may wait awhile after they steal it before they list it on Craigslist or eBay. They figure that after a few weeks, the original owner will have given-up and bought a new bike. I don't know if buyers from eBay or Craigslist ever ask for the registration slip in order to properly transfer ownership, but I've never seen anything that requires paperwork be filled-out prior to selling a bike across state lines. Plus, if you didn't report the bike to HPD as stolen, it simply makes it easier for the thief to resell it. I assume that most people who buy a bike on Craigslist won't check to see if the bike is registered. As long as it has a registration sticker on it, I think most people don't give it a second thought, especially if the buyer doesn't have a lot of money to begin with and is just glad to get an inexpensive bicycle. It really doesn't help that bicycles only have to be registered once when they are first purchased and never again afterwards, since a stolen bike can be ridden for years without being noticed and checked by a police officer. If the sticker is damaged and needs to be replaced, then the rider has to go re-register it. If the bike hadn't been reported as stolen and the DMV doesn't do a background check, the new owner can probably get away with registering your bike and becoming the legal owner.

Fixed gear bikes are seldom stolen for the thief to ride, since they're so much harder to ride than a regular bike and thieves are typically lazy fuckers. Those usually get stolen for the thief to sell to somebody and they know that some people out there are so desperate to look cool riding a fixie that they won't ask too many questions when somebody sells them one at a really cheap price. Fixies call sell for good money on eBay and thieves know it. I bought my first one for about $100 and I've often wondered if it had originally been stolen from somebody. But, the parts it came with were shit and I ended-up replacing the seat, wheels and handlebars anyway, so I think my fears were groundless to begin with. I think it was just an old bike somebody converted to fixed.

The really fucked-up thing about it is that no law enforcement agency that I am aware of keeps track of stolen bicycles and there is no nationwide database of bicycle VINs for law enforcement in other states to check to see if a bike was reported stolen somewhere in the USA. So, once your bike crosses state lines, it's gone forever.

The preferred bike for thieves to steal and keep are usually road bikes with the wide knobby tires and big seats. BMXs, road bikes, mountain bikes, beach cruisers and even children's bikes fall into this category. So, these are the bikes that you really want to make sure are locked-up securely. I've seen a few of the street people riding racing bikes, even ones with the toeclips or triathlon parts on them, but that's kind of rare since they aren't as comfortable to ride.

Street thieves will ride the bike for awhile and they sell it for drugs or money, as I said, or they will trade it "bike for bike" - more exactly, "stolen bike for stolen bike" - to some one else. Your stolen bike can trade hands with as many as a dozen people in a few months.

Even the best bike will need new parts and stolen bikes are no different. This is why seats and wheels get stolen, to replace parts from stolen bikes that are unusable. The worn-out parts are simply discarded in the trash. The amount of care given to the bike by its owner-at-the-time varies. Some get dirty and rusty after getting thrown-around, others get wiped-down and given a surprising amount of care. If you actually get your bike back, its condition really would depend on how many different people have had it since it got stolen.

Most bike thieves don't have a lot of talent for fixing bikes, even those that have tools. So, when brake cables wear out, dérailleurs go bad, nuts and bolts get rusted-out, thieves will start looking for a new bike to steal and your old bike will get stripped for parts and then abandoned. Even something as mundane as a flat tire can make an entire bike unridable for a thief, since they either don't have the tools, a spare tube or even the knowledge of how to change a flat. I've seen street people riding bikes with flat tires for blocks, looking for a friend to help them change it out. I saw a guy once riding a bike with no tires on his bike, just riding on the bare rims. I'm not making this up. Some will simply abandon a bike with a flat tire and steal another bike. They actually think that they really aren't really stealing it, since they left you another bike in-trade. Of course, they don't give a shit if they left you a bike that you couldn't keep or wouldn't want in the first place.

This fact is another reason why securing your wheels to the frame with locking skewers is a good idea. Most of the time, your stolen bike will simply be abandoned if the thief can't change the tire and they can't change the tire if they can't get the wheels off. Simple, really.

Keep in mind that there are actual bike chop shops out there where stolen bikes are brought to be traded for drugs or cash. These things can be established with little space, like in an apartment or studio and the only sign that one is in operation is usually a pile of old bike parts outside or on the lanai and people coming and going at all hours. The bikes are stripped for parts and then resold. Sometimes, they even get painted.

Some years ago, I heard about this guy whose bike got stolen. He wrote it off and got a new one, though he did report it to the police. It found its way into the hands of some one who fixed it up and repainted it. It was actually in better shape than when it had gotten stolen. The thief had sanded-off the rust and license tag, repainted it and added some really cool shit. One day, for some reason, HPD stopped him and ran the VIN on the bike frame. Of course, they learned that the bike was stolen and returned it to the owner who was not only glad to get the bike back, but his bike was better than brand new with really cool accessories and a spiffy paintjob!

Again, and I cannot say this enough: When your bike gets stolen, call the police!!!

If you buy a bike from somebody who posted an ad on Craigslist or whatever, ask them for the registration slip, if they have it. If they don't have it, they could have lost it (it happens) or the bike could be stolen. It's one or the other. If they don't have it, tell them you want a written receipt for the purchase. if they object to this, you may be buying a stolen bike. If the bike has a registration sticker on it, it's registered to some one else, not you. So, if it gets stolen and found by HPD, it will be returned to the owner, not you. If they can't find the owner, it will be impounded and you will lose the bike and the money you spent on it with no recourse. So, let the seller know that you want a written receipt, so you can re-register the bike in your name. If he has a problem with that, buy another bike, because that one is most likely stolen. If you get a receipt, go to the satellite City Hall and register the bike in your name. Show the the receipt of sale and it should be no problem if the seller is legit.

If it turnsout the bike was stolen, fill-out a police report and give the police all the information you have about the person you bought it from. Don't be a nice guy and try to protect him, since you're the one in possession of stolen property and may be facing charges yourself. Then, contact the seller to tell them what happened. Tell them you want your money back. If they refuse, tell them you're going to file charges of fraud against them unless you get your money back. That and a visit from HPD should get you back your cash. If all else fails, file a small claims lawsuit.

If you've already made the buy but didn't get a receipt and want to register it, just show them printouts of whatever email correspondence you had with the seller. It may be a good idea to show them a printout of the ad that you answered, assuming it wasn't deleted.

Remember, if a cop sees you riding a bike with no tag or a mutilated tag, he will ask for the bike registration. If you can't produce it and the VIN shows the bike belongs to some one else, the bike will be impounded. I've ridden a bike with a mutilated tag for months until I finally got stopped by the police for riding on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I had registered the bike and I had my ID on me, so all I had to do was go get another tag for the bike. If I had not registered it, the cop could have impounded the bike and I would have had to prove that I had legally purchased the bike, pay the impound charges as well as the cost of registration. It just takes getting pulled-over one time to find-out if the bike you bought from an ad is stolen or not and you don't want to be in that position.

Don't Trust Passersby

I can just hear it now, "But, if I lock my bike with the shitty lock in a public place, a thief won't steal it in front of all these witnesses. Right?". Wrong. Seriously wrong.

Bikes that have gotten stolen in the daytime are usually stolen with lots of people walking-around. Most people are too timid to say or do anything and don't want to get involved, especially for something as trivial (to them) as a bike getting stolen and they don't want to take the chance that they could be wrong or might get beaten-up by the thief.

Yeah, your bike could get stolen in front of a lot of eye witnesses who won't say or do a thing to stop it and they won't talk to the cops either. You're on your own.

I hope this article has been helpful.

Duane Browning

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