You can make your bike harder to steal, easier to recover
One night in 2008, I left a friend's apartment to head home and discovered that my bike was gone. Someone had sawed through four inches of wood directly in front of a Mount Pleasant apartment building with a guard on duty. About a week ago, thanks to some precautions I had taken, I got that bike back (well, aside from the missing front wheel).
Bike theft is unfortunately common. No bike can be fully theft proof, but we can do several things to make stealing it more difficult and riskier to the thief. Other things you can do will increase your likelihood of getting your bike back like I did. There are no guarantees, and you need a little luck, but here's how you can maximize your chance of getting lucky.
To reduce the risk of theft, make sure you use a good lock, secure the various parts of your bike together, and lock up to a good rack or alternative object. Personally, I am partial to using locking skewers to protect my seat and wheels, locking my frame directly to some immoveable metal (lesson learned!), using a solid u-lock, and parking in strategic locations.
Obviously, we'd all rather make sure our bike is never stolen but you won't always be able to park your bike in a secure garage or your apartment. Regardless of how careful you are, given enough time and the right tools, any bike can be stolen. There are several important things you can do before your bike is stolen to aid in its recovery later.
Know your serial number. Most bikes have a sticker with the serial number on the underside of the down tube (long diagonal tube that is part of the main frame). If yours isn't there, check these other places. If your bike isn't labeled with a serial number, call the store where it was bought and check whether they have it. You'll want this information available on a moment's notice since it's helpful to include in a police report or NBR.
Fill out the paperwork. Do all the paperwork with your lock manufacturer and comply with their directions. Most major lock manufacturers (OnGuard, Kryptonite, etc) have some sort of anti-theft guarantee in which they will cut you a check for the worth of your bike if it is stolen and you can prove that the theft involved the defeat of their correctly employed lock. The rules of these programs are very precise and often require advance registration. Make sure to register and comply exactly with all the instructions. If you do, it will significantly improve the likelihood of their honoring the guarantee if your bike is stolen.
Leave identifying marks. You can engrave information on expensive parts to help prevent theft, but even sneakier is to leave a note with your info in the seat tube. A bike thief will rarely ever look there and should the thief or a future owner take it to a bike shop, the shop might very well find the note.
If your bike falls prey to a thief despite your best efforts, take a few steps to reduce your losses and increase the chance you'll get it back.
File a police report. This will be essential to later making a homeowners insurance, renters insurance or bike lock insurance claim (many companies that sell bike locks offer an anti-theft guarantee).
Check Craigslist. Go to Craigslist and search for your bike using terms like the make, model and style of bike. You might very well find someone trying to sell it very quickly (as this guy did). If you can determine that it is your bike, be in touch with the person selling it and arrange a time to meet. Contact MPD for assistance in recovering it and apprehending the thief or person who has received stolen property.
If your search doesn't turn up your bike, locate the RSS in the lower right-hand corner and set up a search feed. This way you won't have to actively monitor CL and will only get relevant listings. Don't set your search too narrowly, such as "Specialized Sequoia Comp 54cm," or else you may miss out if the bike thief doesn't know enough to list your bike with such detail. Stick with more general search terms even if it means extra ads to sort through.
Register your bike as stolen. For 99 cents you can list your bike in the National Bike Registry as stolen. Then if your bike is recovered, police in any jurisdiction can determine that it is yours and notify you. This is precisely what happened in my case. One day, four years later I got a call out of the blue that my bike had been recovered and I should come to the Ward 7 MPD Station to pick it up. Thanks, Officer Lyke!
Notify bike shops. Make up a flyer to send to local bike shops with as much identifying information you can think. Include the make, model, color, serial number, any parts you've swapped in, and your emergency contact info. If a similar bike comes in, the shop can check the serial number and help reunite you if it is your bike.
Most bike mechanics hate bike theft and will be happy to look out for your bike. What's more, mechanics tend to have good memories for bikes since they see so many and are experts. As a result, they may see the bike on the street, remember your flyer and notify you.
Tell your friends and your "friends." Let as many of your friends and colleagues as possible know that your bike has been stolen. Use social media to spread the word. Wherever you have a following, let them know to look out for your bike.
If you find it, lock it. If you happen to see a bicycle around town that you suspect is yours (identifying marks, serial number, unusual equipment combo, etc) and it is unattended, use your own lock to secure it and call the police. Most bike companies make hundreds if not thousands of bikes with the same make, model, trim, and color, so you need to be certain it is your bike. The police can help you do this.
Bike theft can increase the cost of cycling, but unless you have an extremely valuable bike, it's still generally a cheaper method of travel in the region than driving or taking transit. Even though I had to buy a first bike and then a replacement bike since living in DC, I've saved thousands of dollars, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars, by not owning a car.
Bike theft can be frustrating, but with a little effort, you can reduce your risk and increase your chances of recovering your ride. And, though it can be a hassle if it happens to you, try to keep it in perspective. Biking is still an excellent deal!
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