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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).

Photo by dpwk on Flickr.

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!

Zach Teutsch is an ANC commissioner and the Vice-Chairman of ANC 4C (which covers Petworth and parts of some adjacent neighborhoods). He is committed to affordable housing, economically and racially diverse communities, thriving neighborhoods, and smart urbanism. He lives in Petworth with his wife and daughter.  


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Best tip: Make sure your bike looks like it's harder to steal than the bikes it's standing next to.

by Jasper on Jul 20, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

I got locking skewers when I bought my new bike and had them installed by the mechanics at the shop. They were sort of expensive ($50) and they make changing a flat a lot more difficult (you have to remember to carry the key around with you or else you're SOL). But, I think it's been worth the cost for the peace of mind I'm getting.

ACPD also has an official bicycle registration if you live in Arlington. I registered two bikes when I lived there and they sent me a big ACPD sticker to attach to my frame. In theory the sticker should be a deterrent, as a would-be thief would see the police sticker and decide the hassle of trying to remove it and re-sell the bike would be to great. I'm not sure if that's the case or not.

by Rob P on Jul 20, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

I think the fact that my bike has 5 registration stickers from 5 different cities probably makes it less likely to be stolen. Of course none of them are actually mine - they were from the previous owner.

It also depends on how long your bike is locked up. If it's locked up out in public on the street all day every day, it's more likely to have a wheel stolen.

by MLD on Jul 20, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

Get a folding bike and bring it with you.

by Geof Gee on Jul 20, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

I subscribe to Jasper's line of thinking here. I always bring 2 locks, a cable and a U-lock. I lock the bike using both of them.

I figure if my bike has 2 locks and the other bikes only have 1, the thief will put my bike lower on his or her to-steal list.

I also won't leave my bike at an outdoor parking location for more than 2 hours. Before the bike cage at College Park, I just brought my bike with me on the bus rather than leaving it at a staple rack for 9 hours. At the office, I parked it in my cube.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 20, 2012 12:47 pm • linkreport

I certainly agree with what's been said. Certainly the less time a bike is on the street the safer it is. Conversely, it's worth balancing usability with theft risk, since you don't want to not ride for fear of a theft.

The old approach of riding a $50 bike with a $100 lock is nearly sure to work--especially if you enjoy riding a $50 bike.

by Zach Teutsch on Jul 20, 2012 3:24 pm • linkreport

Amazing that you got it back 4 years later. Was it just abandoned somewhere and someone thought to run the serial number?

by MLD on Jul 20, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

What I'm curious about is what kind of market there can be for used front tires. I had mine (a 26" junker, no less) stolen from my bike in the front yard on the hottest day of the year. I can't see how it is worth anything much (I can get a new replacement for under $30 on amazon).

Where do these actually sell, such that it is worth stealing them?

by egk on Jul 20, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

While I know some people care about what their ride looks like, I like to think that covering my bike with 15 feet of reflective tape (much of which is in various states of fraying and peeling) is both a safety and "anti-theft" measure because a) the brand name of the bike is not visible and b) the frayed tape makes it look old and beaten up (even though it's really not).

by Falls Church on Jul 20, 2012 9:08 pm • linkreport

Egk, crackheads will steal just about anything that's not nailed down, thinking they can get a few bucks for it to feed their fix.

by Dino on Jul 20, 2012 9:09 pm • linkreport

I got my wife's bike back after I found it on CL, posted by a small pawn shop next to NorthEast Market in Baltimore, on East Monument St. A lot of stolen goods tend to surface in this area. It had been stolen from our back yard few days previous, over a 5 foot brick wall w/ locked door after she got back from yoga in Patterson park. I walked into the pawn shop with some officers that had been hanging out in front of the market, armed with a picture of my wife's bike. They wanted me to show them a police report, but I didn't have one because when I initially reported the bike stollen the officer that showed up refused to issue me a police report for a stolen bike, because he said there was no hope of finding it. Eventually the officers let me take the bike anyway after the Pawn shop guy admitted the guys that he bought it off of used their prisonor's ids when the dropped off the bike, because they had just gotten out.

Another bike I had stolen but never recovered had a NY Forgetaboutit U-lock and was locked to a signpost. Neighbors saw two men unbolt the the two signs on the top of the post and life the bike off, re-bolt the signs on, and walk away with the bike which had an imobilizer euro-style ringlock so you can't ride it. it was a very old bike that weighed about 200 pounds. This was at 4AM. Previously someone dis-assembled the dong-dong bell.

Currently I use an incredibly heavy chain lock, and a u-lock thought he front wheel. I have had the skewer in my front wheel stolen once, and many items out of my panniers such as two infant-size helmets, and the velcro comfort pad out of the baby seat, and an extra chain that wasn't locked.

by lee on Jul 21, 2012 9:54 am • linkreport

an experiment I've been running is to put items out to steal in regular places, and then the same items in the panniers of my bike when locked. My experience is that ANYTHING you put in the panniers will get stolen immediately, no matter what it is. I could put the strangest thing, even trash, and it will be gone. the same items put in other public areas will never get touched. Although I've never had anyone steal the actual panniers or baskets...yet. the most unexpected thing was the pad getting stolen off of the baby seat, which was a Bobike mini+ that goes on the front stem. (used luggage lock to fasten to the adapter). I can't imagine why anyone would steal that. Second was the infant-size helmets. I mean, really? not once but twice.

by lee on Jul 21, 2012 10:02 am • linkreport

the second time the infant helmet had actually come apart when I dropped it so it was in pieces, so it was trash at that point. but it still got stolen. Whoever does this must be REALLY high. or just has some crazy stealing addiction that focuses on bike stuff. it seems to be a really common form of psychosis.

by lee on Jul 21, 2012 10:07 am • linkreport

lee, where in the city did all this happen so regularly? I've been riding around with a big rack-top bag and the occasional pannier full of stuff for 3+ years in DC, and have never had anyone even open any of the bags - so I don't think twice about leaving rain gear or even a post-show bottle of whiskey out on the bike in the saddlebag. Then again, I usually lock up in the most high-traffic / visible spot I can find.

by Andrew on Jul 21, 2012 7:38 pm • linkreport

There are some good tips here. I have some others:

If you have an old or rare bike, even a kind of shitty one, thieves might target your components if you your frame/front wheel are secured.

One way to deter this is to fill any hex bolts or allen-head screws with candle wax. Just light a candle, and (carefully) fill it in. It will require you to use a cigarette lighter to melt the wax next time you want to take a part off, but it will save you the trouble of replacing a rare derailer later on.

Also, be careful about which bike racks you use. Some are really frail and can be easily sawed through.

by Michael Hamilton on Jul 23, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

Was looking around to see if there were any LoJack-style GPS transmitter devices that could be activated if and when your wheels were stolen. There are a few that are mentioned, such as ZoomBack, but there substantial drawbacks.

Given that, I am tempted to set forth some requirements for a Bicycle LoJack ("BikeJack"):

* small; can fit in the head tube or seat tube
* solar-powered; no batteries to mess with
* able to be activated by some external event: a text message, a missed check-in, movement while armed, etc
* gathers GPS data and formats into a text message
* discrete; not easily detected or defeated
* antenna integrated into frame design
* Bluetooth control from smart-phone or computer (with the requisite data encryption)

Agree that theft control and management is preferable, but thievery is still going to happen.

by Jack Love on Jul 23, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

Found one:

$325. Pricey.

by Jack Love on Jul 23, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

FYI,locking skewers should only be used on cheap wheels. I won't post the deets,but after reading a posting on the web I can tell you two ways to remove wheels with OnGuard/Pinheads without the proper key. For nice wheels,use two locks;one for the frame and first wheel,one for the second wheel.

And nice bikes should be kept inside. I'd never had a bike stolen in almost 7yrs of living here,until I lost a ti framed cross bike in April. Thief got into the apt's garage and used power tools to cut a chain and Krypto NYC U lock. Security camera's were worthless.

by dynaryder on Jul 23, 2012 7:33 pm • linkreport

If you lock your bike to something that the thief can defeat (i.e. things made of wood) or to anything else they can remove it from by force (i.e. landscape items, fences with moving parts, aluminum railings, sign poles, etc.) thieves can break your bike free and ride off on it with your lock still intact and attached.

If you use a cable as a primary locking device, expect it to be cut off in mere seconds; they stink at providing security. We did a study of bike thefts at my college and over a year's time it showed that over 90% of the bikes reported stolen relied only on a cable lock; in some months is was 93-97%. When you realize that about another 4% of the stolen bikes had been left unlocked and unattended, it begins to make u-locks and heavy chains look pretty good.

Always use a u-lock or heavy case-hardened chain and case-hardened lock as a primary locking device (a cable makes a nice secondary device) and always make sure that it goes through at LEAST one wheel and the frame and is attached to a high quality steel bike rack that can't easily be broken or disassembled.

While any bike can be stolen with the suitable application of time, tools and force, thieves want to blend in and that means RIDING AWAY ON YOUR BIKE. Bike thieves aren't sophisticated in their methodology and if they can't ride it away, they're less likely to target your bike for theft. A u-lock through the frame AND wheels makes it un-rideable unless you can defeat the u-lock and that's downright uncommon (even more so with better u-locks). A bike with the front wheel removed and placed parallel to the rear wheel and then locked with a high-quality u-lock, to a good rack, is downright formidable.

Lastly, never place the "lock" portion of any locking device where it can be pinned to the ground and bashed into submission with a hammer. If it's suspended away from solid objects it can't be bashed without destroying the bike; once again, making your bike a less attractive target.

Oh yeah, for the guy who wonders if there's really a market for stolen front wheels; in my experience thieves take them to use on the nearby bike they just stole because it was only secured by its front wheel. They put your front wheel on the stolen bike's fork and ride it away. Again, they want to blend in and look natural. If your front wheel is stolen, look around, there's probably a lonely front wheel attached by a u-lock on a nearby rack.

by Brandt on Jul 24, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

Interesting - many of the same points as I made in my post about my top 10 tips to keep your bike from being stolen -
But great idea about locking the bike if you think you have found it. I will have to add that to my post and then call it my top 11 tips!
By the way, your BOT test is incredibly hard - please exclude just bots, not geographically challenged human beings.

by Average Joe Cyclist on Jan 17, 2015 10:03 pm • linkreport

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