Recover a Stolen Bicycle? Maybe -- If You Do It Right

Stolen Bike by itsbruce_Flickr.jpg
itsbruce / Flickr
Thieves: Persistent bunch, aren't they?
Whether through web-based tracking or old-timey brute force, stealing a bike still seems easy. Far easier than getting the damn thing back. All you bike-theft victims, disregard the recent case of a Washington, D.C., man spotting his stolen ride on Craigslist and executing a flawless extraction. You'll never get that lucky.

But who even knows the odds? By one estimate, only half of bike thefts are even reported. Of those, bike-recovery rates seem minuscule -- police departments don't separate bike thefts from petty thefts overall. Your thin hope lies in doing a little homework, pre-theft.

One cautionary tale. Several months ago, some turd-blossom stole the lovely leather saddle from my town bike, parked near the Metreon downtown, as I was enjoying The Adventures of Tintin. (I really should have chained the seat to my frame, or settled for something dowdier.)

Then, poking around Craiglist a few weeks back, I spotted my beloved, or so I was convinced. My better judgment took a good long nap while I dialed the seller and set up a meeting near the 16th Street BART station. Obviously, I had a plan: Grab the goods and scram.


Well, I fumbled the grab and failed to scram. Following a low-budget scuffle, I hung tight to the seller's t-shirt while we hollered euphemisms for "bad guy" at each other. A passing meter-maid called the cops.

Soon, under the piercing stare of the seller and his growing cohort, I listened to two cops explain that unless I could prove the saddle was mine, it would be the newest addition to their stolen-property room. I had no proof. And potentially faced charges of unlawful detention (by latching myself to the seller), not to mention -- oh, sweet irony -- petty theft. At this point, one officer pointed out that it was "a horrendously bad idea" not to call the police station beforehand. I wandered home, considered throwing up, and hunted for some way to prove the saddle was mine.

By the way, the cops stressed to me how ready they'd have been, in this case at least, to do a plainclothes sting. All they needed was the proof, and I could have watched a real-life Law & Order from a distance, without ever letting the seller know my phone number (gulp) or otherwise opening myself up to future recrimination.

Anyway, I quickly found a picture of my old saddle, perched perkily atop my bike during a beach trip last fall. Oh God. It was entirely, shamefully different from the one on Craigslist, the one I'd tried to grab. I called the fuzz. They called the seller to come retrieve his seat. I haven't heard anything since. Talk about luck.

Idiots are the best kind of teachers, so take some lessons from me:

Before it's stolen, give yourself the proof you'll need. Gut instinct can give you a really bad plan. Register your bike. It can't hurt, and the registry is endorsed by none other than McGruff the Crime Dog. If you're okay with decals on your bicycle's frame, great -- that'll make otherwise generic bikes more identifiable on Craigslist, a.k.a. the crappiest Instagram filter on the web. Into uglification? Me neither, but it seems to work. 

Next, etch your initials into a nook on the seat, unseal your handlebars and shove some identifiable paper up there, scratch your mom's name on the frame -- even if thieves grind away your bike's recorded serial number, you've got a little secret.

Report your theft (and dial the precinct, not 911). Even if it's just a seat, that's a crime. I might be naïve, but if law enforcement learned just how common bicycle-related thefts are -- one survey, albeit from New York in the pre-Giuliani 1990s, estimated just one reported theft for every 10 committed, and a whopping l.03 stolen bikes for every bike owner -- we might begin seeing enforcement techniques to match. A number of databases and Facebook pages list stolen bikes too -- post your loss there, if only to feel like you've done something.

On the off-chance you find what you can prove is your baby, call the police department and hand over your homework. Let cops do cop stuff. Why would you miss out on a police sting, conducted on your behalf and at no charge? Cynics might gripe that cops don't bother with theft. Whatever. The cops on my case seemed genuinely bummed that they missed a casual lunch-hour sting. (Who wouldn't be stoked to legally grind a bike thief into submission?) I also wonder whether a cyclo-minded S.F. supervisor might introduce a bill clarifying how bike crimes are classified and their statistics reported.

As a wise crime-dog may have once growled, you can't fight crimes that you don't know exist. Believe me.

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The Spokesman is a weekly bicycle column written by French Clements, a San Francisco resident and distance cyclist who considers it pretty routine to ride his bike to Marin County or San Jose and back. He belongs to a club, the SF Randonneurs, and is active in numerous aspects of the cycling community. For those of you wondering, the title of this column is a slightly tongue-in-cheek merging of bicycling and blogging terms, not a claim that Clements speaks for anyone but himself.

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