The other day I read the abbreviated version of the following article, written by Jim Teague about bike theft. I get a lot of emails from people that have had their bikes nabbed- looking for some way to increase their chances of retrieval. I was impressed with Jim’s approach and asked him if he would like to write an expanded version for the blog. He wrote back quickly with a “yes” and Monday morning- this was in my inbox. Thanks to Jim for taking the time and I hope that it is helpful to those that may have lost a bike to theft.
Bike theft advice: both before and after. Written by Jim Teague
Maybe you are unfortunate enough for this to have happened to you, but it goes like this…
You walk out to the garage to grab your bike and…it’s not there. You spend another 10 minutes, like an idiot, looking under rags, behind this bucket and behind that 2×4, etc…. because you know it’s here, but for some reason you just can’t see it. Eventually it sinks in – it’s been stolen and someone else has your bike now. You almost feel sick.
Well, I’m recounting my own experience above. And I did all the “right” things: I promptly reported it to the police (and my insurance company), and within a few days had a dead-on, slam-dunk identification of my bike on Craig’s List. I worked with the police, asking them how I should approach the situation. But my case is now closed and my bike is gone forever. To sum it up, it goes like this: someone walked into my garage and stole one of my most prized possessions and essentially sold it for scrap, right in front of me. And there was basically nothing that could be done about it.
But saying that there’s “nothing” I could have done isn’t exactly true. Knowing what I know now, I would have done a few things differently. Of course, prior to the theft I would have kept better records, but there are things I would have done differently even after the theft. Let me walk through a few of those things and share my hard-won experience.
Before the Theft
My bike was unique, there wasn’t another one on the earth like it. It was purchased as a frameset, and I outfitted it with a combination of components that were purchased new, as well as some that I migrated off of my previous frameset. So other than the frame and fork, every item was individually picked by me, at different times. But this doesn’t mean anything to most of the general public (including police, detectives, and any judge you might want to sign a search warrant). They first thing the police will ask you is “how do you know it’s your bike?”. You know that bike so well that you’re actually offended at that question. But you compose yourself and proceed to explain to them until you’re blue in the face the color of the spoke nipples, how many teeth are on each cog in the cassette, etc., etc., etc. You are met with skepticism, or at best, some sympathy: “I agree with you – I think that bike might be yours”. I never, at any point in the conversation, said “might”.
As above, these detailed descriptions are basically meaningless to most of the general public, who barely knows how many wheels a bike has. As far as they know, all bikes are bought from a department store along with thousands of identical others. But to be fair, maybe the police officer has just come off a case where someone said they knew for sure some stolen property was theirs, only to be made a fool of.
Your weapons of choice here are 1) The Serial Number, and 2) The Receipt. Go write down the serial number of your bike, as well as all the parts that have one, and keep it all in a safe place. From law enforcement’s perspective, that is irrefutable evidence that the bike is yours. Secondly, keep receipts for the bike and at least the major components. That helps back you up.
Here’s the other piece of advice: have some good homeowner’s insurance with “replacement cost”. Actually I did, and I’m getting a replacement bike for the amount of my deductible.
After the Theft
The usual situation here is that some low-life has grabbed your bike in order to exchange it for some quick cash. Usually, the ad you may find on Craigs List is incredibly naïve. While someone legitimately selling a high-end bike would relate meticulous detail on things like the size and the components, these thieves typically don’t provide any of that information because they really haven’t a clue. My ad said “I don’t have time to ride my bike anymore, so I’m selling it”. That’s it, nothing more. When I found the ad I went to the police to ask their advice, and they said “just answer the ad as you would inquire for any bike”. I actually did as they suggested, but that’s terrible advice and I would certainly do it differently today.
I created a fake gmail account and responded to the ad asking “What condition is it in?” which is fine, but then I asked “What size is it, and what components are on it?”. Those latter questions were perfectly normal questions any cyclist would want to know the answers to, but in this case they were a big mistake for two reasons. First, it might seem too inquisitive and make them suspicious. Second, as above, they don’t know the answers to those questions. They are simply looking for someone who will give them quick cash for their stolen goods. I never got a response. Instead, I should have said “I would like to buy the bike if you still have it, when can we meet?”.
Let me stop here and say that getting a response from the thief is critical to any chances of recovering your bike. If you can’t lure them into setting up a meeting, or even to give you more information about themselves, you’re going nowhere. I would also suggest that you recruit several of your friends to respond to the ad as well, it will improve the odds of a response. Once the thief responds to one of them, contact the police immediately and try to coordinate a “sting” operation.
In terms of dealing with the police, you will probably end up filing the initial police report over the phone, but at some point you should march yourself down to the station and talk with someone face-to-face, and hand them any documentation you have. It will make the case more “real”, and will also help your credibility and demonstrate that you are serious about getting to the bottom of this. My case got nowhere until I went to the police station, and handed the officer a photograph of the bike and a full page list of how it could be identified. He pledged to take that information to the detectives the next day, and he did. The detective called me and we had several discussions after that.
My own story didn’t have a happy ending, though, despite what you read about on what seems a regular basis. The detective handling my case was going to make his own ad query along the lines of my suggestion (just offer them money). But by that time the bike was either sold, or the ad expired, and we had no way to close the gap between me and the anonymous thief. The detective said that no judge would sign a Craig’s List inquiry for a search warrant based on “a photo”. The case is closed now.
So here’s a summary of what I recommend:
· Write down all of your serial numbers and keep receipts
· Make sure you have good homeowner’s insurance that insures for replacement cost
· Good security around your home/apartment. For example, make sure you NEVER leave your garage door open overnight
· Work with the police: file a police report immediately (you’ll have to do this anyway for your insurance claim)
· Gather the evidence you have on paper, go to the police station to talk to a person, and give them this information
· Also be clear about the value with the police. If you just say “a bike’, they may assume a $150 value, but if it is high end make sure they know that
· If you respond to a Craig’s List ad, make it simple and attractive to the thief – after coordinating with the police, just offer to buy it and don’t ask any questions. Recruiting some friends to respond as well will improve the chances of a response.