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Will the next Craigslist actually fight bike theft?

Posted by on December 17th, 2015 at 11:10 am

offerup
OfferUp has $90 million in venture funding and is growing fast as an alternative to Craigslist in part by branding itself as friendlier and less anonymous.

A new crop of well-funded Craigslist competitors has some anti-bike-theft organizers smelling an opportunity.

Craigslist, the San Francisco-based classifieds website founded in 1995, is a common venue for reselling stolen bikes, in part because it does almost nothing to regulate the goods people buy and sell.

“Craigslist is a freaking wall a mile high,” said Bryan Hance, the Portland-based operator of the anti-theft service BikeIndex.org. “They just don’t do anything with anybody. They just don’t care.”

Bryan Hance of BikeIndex.org is
trying to build partnerships.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

In an interview last week, Hance (who’s been using digital tools to fight bike theft for years) said he’s tried multiple times to persuade the site to take some steps against bike theft, even having “some heated exchanges” with Craigslist employees he’d encountered personally in San Francisco.

It’s easy to see why he’s passionate. Making it harder to resell a stolen bike on Craigslist or elsewhere would attack the revenue of bike thieves rather than resorting to one-off enforcement. But that’s easier said than done.

“I think the only response we’ve gotten from Craigslist is that ‘we’re already dealing with so many stolen things that are more valuable than bikes,'” Hance said. “And it’s like, Wow, that is not a good answer!

Craigslist didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Hance dreams of a day when Craigslist and similar sites would employ anti-theft teams large enough to block people who have in the past been caught selling stolen goods, or to require all bike sellers to include the serial number of the bike they’re selling, or to at least give user information to police officers on the rare occasion that one is investigating a bike theft.

“What if I show you an email where I say I want you to send me the serial number and they say no?” Hance asked, rhetorically. “What are you going to do? Are you going to shut that guy down? Because I want to shut them down. … I want that guy not to be able to sell stuff online.”

It’s been a fruitless effort. But now, 10 years after it singlehandedly took over the national classifieds market, Craigslist is facing new competition. And Hance is wondering if one of them could be the modern classified industry’s chance for a do-over.


Some of the new services: OfferUp, VarageSale, Wallapop, Letgo. All are designed to work well on mobile devices, which account for about a third of global web traffic. (That doesn’t count mobile apps, which all the newer companies offer. Craigslist, by contrast, simply makes its listings available to third-party apps.)

“They’re just clones of each other, and they’re just exploding in popularity and traffic, and I think people like them better because they’re just pictures,” Hance said. “It’s Pinterest but you can buy stuff. It’s just a different user experience.”

wallapop
Wallapop, based in Barcelona, Spain, has a reported $40 million in venture funding.

OfferUp, based in Seattle, seems to be one of the largest of the new set. It made its first big media splash last month when its executives started publicly discussing the more than $90 million they’ve raised in venture capital, and the $3 billion in transactions they’ve handled this year.

OfferUp’s service depends on its app’s ability to easily upload photos of goods for sale. Hance wonders if the company could require all bike sales to include a photo of the bike’s serial number, which would make it easy for a buyer to check the serial number against stolen-bike databases.

Just as Portland is among the first set of U.S. cities to impose regulations on ride-hailing service like Uber, it could theoretically put rules on goods-selling services like Craigslist or OfferUp.

Hance said he’s had some promising interactions with OfferUp, so at his recommendation I contacted them last Thursday. But despite a prompt response from the company’s spokesman, no one at the company (which reportedly employed 67 people as of last month) could find time over the last week to answer questions by phone or email about possible anti-theft measures.

If companies like OfferUp aren’t willing to go out of their way to reduce theft, there’s another possibility: governments could require them to do so. Just as Portland is among the first set of U.S. cities to impose regulations on ride-hailing service like Uber, it could theoretically put rules on goods-selling services like Craigslist or OfferUp.

Of course, that would require the city to pay people to enforce the rules — something Portland is funding, in Uber’s case, by putting a fee on all rides. For a free service like OfferUp’s, that’d be harder.

Hance said that duty once fell to the Portland Police Bureau, but it was eliminated for other priorities.

“Portland used to have six dudes that just did stuff like this, that chased stolen stuff online,” Hance said. “This is all they did, is just hunt the stolen stuff down.”

Chad Stover, a staffer for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales who has been involved in the city’s efforts to fight bike theft, said Wednesday that the notion of regulating online sellers was floated in one meeting of the city’s Bike Theft Task Force, but hasn’t come up since.

As for fighting bike theft in general, Stover said, “we’re all for that and to continue that dialogue.”

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: At BikePortland, we love your comments. We love them so much that we devote many hours every week to read them and make sure they are productive, inclusive, and supportive. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with someone. It means you must do it with tact and respect. If you see an inconsiderate or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan and Michael

24 Comments
  • LC December 17, 2015 at 11:30 am

    I’ve seen such a far greater ratio of stolen to not stolen bikes on offerup, to the extent that I’ve written it off as simply an outlet for criminals.

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  • Scott H December 17, 2015 at 11:39 am

    The idea of regulating classifieds websites, as romantic as it sounds, will never be a practical solution to bike theft. That’s just not how the internet works. If Portland imposed a fee, a new, free site would pop up so fast it would make the Mayor’s head spin.

    To stop stolen bikes from being sold online, every classifieds site would need to make serial numbers mandatory. You can’t have OfferUp require serial numbers while thieves still use Craigslist to offload their stolen goods. Until Craigslist plays ball, little will change in the world of online classifieds.

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    • Mike Quiglery December 17, 2015 at 11:51 am

      And what’s to prevent listing fake serial numbers? How many people who buy off these websites actually check the serial number? Or even care?

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      • Scott H December 17, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        Yes, exactly, fake serial numbers, no serial numbers, etc. It seems like there won’t ever be an effective way to stop stolen items from being sold to careless buyers. The solution to bike theft has to involve stopping the bikes from being stolen in the first place.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm

          Hence Hance’s suggestion that sellers would have to take a photo of the serial number.

          Or if it’s a text field and they enter a fake one, that could at least be checked against reality, and would presumably be a violation of the site’s terms of service.

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          • dbrunker December 17, 2015 at 5:43 pm

            I’ve seen hundreds of bicycle serial numbers. The first problem with requiring a picture of them is they’re very faint. Often you can’t tell if you’re looking at a “G” or a “C” or a “0” or an “O”. So, even if you do have a picture it may not be legible, even in the best circumstances. In real world circumstances, they may not even show up on the picture because they’re so faintly stamped into the bike. The second problem can be summed up in one word, “Photoshop”. It’s just too easy to fake it and who’s going to be there to confirm the photo is valid?

            Don’t get me wrong, I want to end bike theft really badly. I’ve resorted to folding bikes, keeping bikes in the same room where I sleep and having a special bike that I only ride when I have to lock up outside, that’s old and has no lights, bags or parts that are worth stealing.

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    • David Feldman December 17, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      And a problem with that is that there are bikes and other goods without serial numbers–case in point, a well regarded Seattle custom bike builder has never put a serial number on their frames since their start in the 1970’s. And, yes, this isn’t a music website, but Fender guitars and basses have their serial number on a small steel plate held on by four screws. Many Fender instruments with no serial number change hands legitimately.
      A serial number isn’t everything we’d want it to be.

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      • Andrew Squirrel December 17, 2015 at 2:44 pm

        Exactly. 2 of my custom one-off steel bikes don’t even have serial numbers (purchased them used). If I were to sell them on a site that required a serial number for posting would I be forced to fake one? I realize you can have them numbered by a local shop with numbered taps but i’d be worried about brittle paint cracking on the bottom bracket shell and the imprint being unclear

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  • Mick O December 17, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Mr. Hance is very frustrated with Craigslist. I get that. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be frustrated. But I don’t believe it’s true that they “just don’t care.” They are not what I would call a corporate behemoth.

    An alternative to Craigslist will probably come up and topple their business. That seems inevitable. And that alternative will sell out to Amazon or Google. If Craigslist’s wall is a mile high, we’ll need a bigger measuring stick for the situation then.

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    • q`Tzal December 17, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      An alternative to Craigslist would have to offer a more compelling service at a better price. Since Craigslist’s price is free this is a dicey proposition.

      In my mind an attractive alternative to Craigslist would include a better item listing page editor, ANY way for legal authorities to track criminal activity and someway to assure buyers and sellers that a meet up to exchange money for the item doesn’t become an imminent threat to health and safety.

      Especially the last one. Irrational as the fear is it exists and any Craigslist killer that solves this could likely ascend meteorically.

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  • todd boulanger December 17, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Bike theft + Easy On-Line Sales + Poor Ownership records / Wild West Approach to Serial Number Creation by Bike Frame Makers = easy $$$$.

    One of the most difficult aspects of our business of parking bikes is attempting to get members to correctly register their bikes (and save their bike frame data) when they bring a new bike into our Bikestations.

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  • q`Tzal December 17, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    A social campaign could be launched that directly implies that a bike (or any other high theft item) without a serial number is guilty until proven innocent.
    Basically shame people into not selling bikes on high theft platforms like Craigslist.

    Yes, I know, some custom frames from small builders do not have a serial number. Provenance can be verified with a receipt of sale at least and maybe the ridiculous things like warranty paperwork or user manuals.

    This may realistically be the easiest and most effective way to affect the changes everyone wants here.

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  • Buzz December 17, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Weak sauce!

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  • Tim December 17, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Right now there is not much deterrent to bike theft and selling stolen goods. However, Those of us who sometimes buy used equipment can certainly help by checking before we buy. If they will not furnish serial numbers or an address and know little about the product they sell, then don’t buy. Sure they will sell to someone else, but fewer willing buyers means lower prices and less profitable thieving.

    If it is too good to be true – it is.

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  • 9watts December 17, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Two u-locks if you have an expensive bike; one if yours isn’t expensive. How much of a problem will we still have if we take that simple* step?

    The question isn’t whether it is physically possible to bust open a U-lock; it is. But from everything I’ve been able to gather the ratio of bikes-that-were-properly-locked-with-a-U-lock to bikes that were not is vanishingly small. If I’m wildly off please show me the numbers.

    * simple compared to most of the solutions profiled here, that tend to involve some combination of pleasing, large bureaucracies, intra-agency coordination, tax payer funds, expensive equipment, high risks, etc.

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    • Scott H December 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      I just pulled the ~40 most(ly)-recent stolen BikeIndex bikes that provided locking-method data and here’s what it looked like:

      9 u-lock
      4 u-lock and cable
      11 cable lock
      2 chain-padlock
      7 not locked
      7 other

      About 38% claimed to have been ~properly locked (I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the people using chains that it was a sturdy chain). Intrigued, I pulled the next 200, and defeated U-locks/padlocks were still about 38% of those thefts.

      Granted, we can’t count the number of U-locks used today that did deter a theft, it’s safe to say that U-locks aren’t stopping all of the determined thieves. So the question still is, what will?

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      • 9watts December 17, 2015 at 6:30 pm

        Thanks for those statistics, Scott H. Very helpful and interesting.
        I wonder if it is possible that
        (a) more expensive bikes are more likely to be locked with U-locks;
        (b) those bikes would be more likely to end up in this index;
        thus leading to
        (c) an unknown probability of U-locked stolen bikes over-represented in this sample.

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        • Middle of the Road guy December 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm

          Two U locks on a bike is a good sign to a thief that it is a bike worth stealing.

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          • 9watts December 21, 2015 at 11:25 am

            Do you really think thieves need tips like that to know whether a bike is worth stealing; moreover why would they give that bike a second thought when that two-U-lock setup translates into more work for them than 99% of all other bikes?

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      • Dirty D December 18, 2015 at 11:49 am

        Check out the following video:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HybNIaMSyP0
        These guys make short work of u-locks.

        I am a metallurgist. There is literally nothing I have seen on the market that you can’t cut, freeze, fracture or break with readily available products. My advise is keep your shit inside.

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        • Alan 1.0 December 18, 2015 at 1:53 pm

          Leroy Parsons is being kept inside at this time.

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        • 9watts December 18, 2015 at 3:13 pm

          That was an utterly unpersuasive ‘demonstration.’
          One of the reasons I’ve always stressed ‘proper’ locking technique is that rule one is to always fill the lock with bike, for exactly that reason. The u-lock in the video was just dangling on the downtube. Nothing was actually locked to anything.

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  • Dirty D December 17, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    I don’t believe that the solution is going to be found within the sales tool, be it OfferUp, Craigslist or other. The community has to stop buying bikes that are stolen, dry up the market and this will help reduce theft.

    websites could reducing transactions of stolen goods if they posted photos of bikes on BikeIndex next to the ad (allowing users to simply cross reference the bike to recently stolen bikes that match certain trains – make, model, color, etc.)

    Ex: I’m selling a red Specialized Rockhopper on CL; the ad would have my sales photos and at the bottom of the ad would have photos from BikeIndex of red bikes, Specialized bikes, Rockhoppers. But it’s only going to work if the person purchasing the bike cares enough that they don’t want to buy a stolen bike…. And that’s something we’re a long way from.

    Bryan has managed BikeIndex, which has been a great online rallying point for a bunch of local bike thief busters and a place to raise awareness about theft. I look at these ads and immediately know that they are stolen, while my coworker is telling me to “check out this great ‘deal’, man” ….

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  • SE December 18, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Will the next Craigslist actually fight bike theft?

    I’ve never heard of any of those nexts. Like the next Ebay , ain’t gonna happen in the near enough future to help most of us.

    At this point: just wishful thinking.

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