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Comment of the Week: How to fight bike theft

Posted by on October 3rd, 2014 at 3:21 pm

A “Cash for Bicycles” offer posted at St. Francis Park in
SE Portland, modified to remove its number.
(Photo: Bryan Hance)

Bryan Hance might know more about bike theft than anybody in the country.

So it’s always a treat when the Portland resident and founder of StolenBicycleRegistry.com, now BikeIndex.org, drops some knowledge here. (Note: Hance is also creator of the Stolen Bike Listings tool we use here on BikePortland — which will be relaunched very very soon!)

Here’s what Hance had to say on our post about our new Bike Theft Chronicles feature. Hance is working on a similar problem to local startup Project 529 — make it free and easy for everyone to register their bikes before thefts and to track them after thefts — but he’s tackling it from an open-source angle.

I wanted to jump in and comment for a number of reasons:

First, to the person who emailed in “I just feel so defeated and vulnerable” — man, I’m right there with you. I field about 30 – 50 stolen bike listings a day, as I’m dealing with cities all over the US, and I get the same fatigue. This is why I’m channeling my work into BikeIndex, and our listings, and our work with cops, riders, BikePortland, etc. to get the kind of helpful info you describe into the hands of people who want to help us fight bike thieves. And it works! You wouldn’t believe the needles we’re pulling out of haystacks these days when it comes to bike thefts – all we need is the help from people like you. So don’t give up, please. We’ll provide the tools, you provide the intel, and we get bikes back. Let’s push back.

Second, re: transients/thieves. Sensitive topic, but it’s out of control – take a walk along the Springwater, under the Morrison/Burnside bridges on the Esplanade, under the 405/Johnson underpass, over by St. Francis park .. I could go on. You’ll see the stacks of frames and transients chopping stolen bikes in broad daylight. Even worse, we’ve got some guy posting “cash for bikes” ads literally feet away from the homeless encampment/chop shop under the Hawthorne bridge. These are the problems we look to PPB for help with, so I look forward to hearing more about how they’re going to help tackle this problem. But the thefts are going largely unpunished – even when bikes are recovered – and something must be done about this. I don’t envy PPB for the problems they face, but this year is absolutely out of control when it comes to bike thefts, and they’re almost always tied to other crimes involving property theft, drugs, weapons, etc. Something in this equation has to change, and we need PPB’s help.

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I’ll admit, it’s a rough topic: I’m dealing with my own transient/homeless issues in my neighborhood with a rise in thefts, break-ins, car/backyard prowls, emergency calls, drug use, etc. I’ve installed multiple dropcams around my house after my own home break-in, which could be the subject of a whole other pissed-off blog post. Reading these daily report about garage break-ins, home break-ins, backyard/side yard entrance thefts, and broad-daylight thefts with pry bars and bolt cutters in broad daylight … it doesn’t help dissuade my opinion here.

All I can do is urge people to start taking their home security seriously, and to start assuming creepy thieves/dudes are going to come poking around your backyard at 4am looking for things to take. Because they are. You want proof, follow me at @stolenbikereg and track the listings in Portland and count the number that are taken from people’s houses/garages/backyards/halls/basements/car ports/front doors at 4am.

Lastly, one of the largest problems we face is a lack of serial documentation – a HUGE number of the bikes we get registered as stolen don’t have serial numbers on file, which means even if the cops catch someone with your bike, they can’t match it. This is why I partnered with BikeIndex.org, because they really nailed it with the free registration aspect and solved a lot of the crazy serial and search problems.

So: bike shops – please look into bikeindex.org to help get your customers bikes registered. Fast, free, mobile friendly – please please please do this.

Riders: PLEASE go register your bikes at bikeindex.org – it’s free, it’s fast, and we keep your info safe, won’t spam you, and exist solely to help you protect your bikes. You can check out bikeindex.org for more info. (And BikeIndex data is fully synced with BikePortland’s listings, so whether you post your stolen bike there or here, it will all be part of the same dataset.)

PD’s [police departments], bike org’s, pawn shops, ANYBODY who comes into contact with lots of bikes: we have tools ready to go for you right now to register and search for stolen bikes. Drop me a line – bryan at bikeindex dot org and I’ll get in touch. So many things still under wraps, I’m sure you’ll read about there here soon 🙂

Thanks, and feel free to drop me a line if anybody has questions.

All of us > Thieves. Don’t forget that.

-Bryan Hance
BikeIndex.org

Thanks to everyone for all your excellent comments. It’s been another illuminating, insightful, and inspiring week.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Buzz
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Buzz

Good info. You can also track crime stats in your neighborhood by various categories at Portlandmaps.com, I think it’s available to the general public.

So far I’ve been lucky not to have any bikes stolen, but unfortunately have been the victim of both a home burglary and a pet theft within the past several months, and car prowls are a constant problem in my inner SE neighborhood.

Also, I have noted over the past decade that some bike manufacturers (Trek for one) no longer stamp serial numbers into bike frames, but rather, use a sticker for the serial number, which seems much easier to remove than a number stamped into the metal frame.

The transient camp where I regularly see large numbers of most likely stolen bikes and bike parts is just off the Eastside Esplanade under the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge/1-5 at ~SE Madison and SE Main near the new fireboat station under construction there.

I lock all my bikes even inside a locked garage, either to each other or even just to themselves, so at least they can’t be ridden off, and I’ve given up using either cable locks or standard Kryptonite locks, most of the locks I use now are manufactured by Abus, who makes a much better product, IMO.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I think Portland should have a city ordinance prohibiting the possession of large quantities of bicycles or bicycle parts in a public space.

“Large quantities” could be defined, for example, as more than 10 complete bikes, frames, or wheels; or more than 30 other components.

There would be an exception for organized swap meets. The prohibition wouldn’t apply to bicycles or components on private property, residences, bike shops, other businesses. Maybe an exception for bikes that are being ridden, so as to not inadvertently prohibit group rides. There might be some other drafting issues to think about. But it wouldn’t be hard to write a clear ordinance.

With such an ordinance, the PPD wouldn’t need to prove unlawful possession. Whenever they see a bike chop shop, they could confiscate it all, and hand out tickets to anyone stupid enough to claim possession.

Lose their “inventory” a few times, and the tweakers will figure that it isn’t worth it. At worst they will be reduced to “stocking” one or two bikes at a time, which will hamper the chop shops considerably.

lyle w.
Guest
lyle w.

This is an incredibly smart train of thought, and exactly what I have in mind when I say that the PPB and the city isn’t sufficiently committed to proactively combating bike theft. Because, in my opinion, if they were, this is the type of thing that would have been enacted long ago. Way before bike theft in this city got the point it’s at now, and in the obvious and ridiculous way it’s in all our faces when we ride around the esplanade/springwater, etc.

They could also tie something like this into being able to make you prove you legally own all the frames/parts/wheels you have in your camp/pirate boat/lean-to/etc… and also track it to criminal records (and in particular criminal records that record a pattern of property theft).

So, that is to say, if you have no way to prove ANYTHING in your camp is yours, you have zero paperwork or any documents of any kind, and you have a history of theft, you will absolutely have the parts confiscated, and you’ll also possibly be arrested (and definitely arrested if it happens multiple times).

JV
Guest
JV

This is somewhat similar to the issues they have had in some European cities. I think we can all take some lessons from how they operate. In Berlin I was looking for a used bike, and there certainly were cheap ones at the flea markets, most of which appeared to be stolen, some resprayed etc… However, there are also lots of second-hand bike shops and private party sellers, and social ways to limit the purchase of stolen merch.

Essentially, it becomes the responsibility of the seller to provide a “receipt” with their contact info and information about the bike : color, frame, serial, accessories. The default (among Germans I met) was to only buy bikes from a place/person that would give you a receipt. Otherwise, it was assumed the bike was stolen, and the person was sketchy. This socialized expectation of a receipt would go a long way towards meeting the objective of reducing bike theft!

There is no expectation that people have “proof of ownership” on them, just more accountability in the marketplace. Of course there will be unscrupulous people who will want a deal, and buy a stolen bike, but it limits the market for stolen goods considerably.

Pete
Guest
Pete

Man, I’m glad I don’t live in Portland anymore… my garage would be raided by PPB SWAT! 🙂

Adam
Guest
Adam

Public space.

lyle w.
Guest
lyle w.

Can you prove ownership of anything in your garage? Even amazon/ebay invoices for the pedals/tires/bartape you have? Do you have a long history of property theft? Have you had a paying job in the last five years where you can definitively prove that you’ve had a legitimate form of income? Can you call up anybody who gave you/sold you anything attached to any of the bikes you have that will vouch for you being a legal owner of these things?

You’re probably gonna be okay.

Pete
Guest
Pete

I don’t know… I’ve got a Masi that doesn’t have Campy and the last thing I need right now is deportation to an Italian courtroom.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Pete, the ordinance I propose would apply only to stashes in public space – basically, chop shops in homeless encampments. It wouldn’t apply to stashes in houses, garages, businesses.

BIKELEPTIC
Guest

Part of the problem is within private homes, though. I have to stay out of this conversation due to “conflict of interest”; but there are many, many apartments (and probably houses/garages, etc) that are packed full of stolen bikes. Seeing stolen bikes on a daily basis but not being able to prove it is frustrating. I just saw an S-Works bmx bike and am currently working with the rider. And am pretty positive that the rider didn’t purchase it through any traditional outlet. The other day at a staff meeting I saw a someone working on a really nice fuji with spd-sl cleats on it trying to fix the chain. I spent half the meeting searching the registry on my cellphone from my lap to no avail. Again pretty positive that the person was not the owner; the absence of the correct shoes being a telling note. There are apts packed full of bikes that are spilling out into the hallway. I’ve seen them. When a person says “I’m not stealing them, I’m fixing them up for people.” And you know they’re lying, what do you do?

davemess
Guest
davemess

I think the “open air public” part is at least a start though. Sure there are chop shops in homes, but the lowest hanging fruit are the places we ride by every day where criminals are openly flaunting their conquests.

Edwards
Guest
Edwards

Call the police and let them know there is a theft ring in the building… call the apartment manager and let them know there is a theft ring in their building. Call the property owner (apartment building) let them know there is a theft ring in their building.
Call Koin 6 and KATU news and let them know there is a bike theft ring in the building…
Its that easy!

Beth
Guest

On the other hand, if I have to start saving every receipt and every scrap of paper with a private party seller’s name and phone nmber, and must a begin logging every single bicycle part purchase, new or used, in a little notebook, all insurance against the day I am busted for Owning Too Many Nice Things, we’ve got a much bigger problem here than bike theft by so-called undesirables. This stuff CAN go too far.

Pete
Guest
Pete

JMaus I’m sure you don’t remember the emails we traded about this idea back when you started the site, but it’s great to see all this coming together. One obvious piece of advice for everyone is to take several pictures of your bike(s) and include shots of any serial numbers. Then again, who doesn’t take lots of pictures of their bikes?? 😉

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

just do us all a favor and don’t pose them in front of your ugly garage door!

Caesar
Guest
Caesar

I wonder what sort of correlation there might be between type of locking device used (u-lock, chain, cable), locking method used (bike frame only, frame and wheel, etc) and susceptibility to theft. Because I am routinely surprised, on my daily rides and walks thorough the city at how many bikes I see that are not optimally secured. So many bikes with flimsy cables that even I could probably sever with a pair of standard wire cutters. So may bikes with only the frame locked and a front wheel with a quick release skewer practically screaming “take me.” I wonder how many fewer bikes or wheels would be lost to theft if cyclists radically increased the used of u-locks through the front wheel and frame. Clearly no lock is completely immune to a thief with the time and tools and motivation to cut it, but if cyclists optimized their security methods it would have to improve the numbers significantly.

William
Guest
William

Here in San Francisco, like Portland thousands of bikes are stolen and chopped up. When I ask powers that be, Why? They say “drugs”. But Drug sellers don’t want bikes they want money. I looked at the online lists, there are few questionable sellers and not enough offerings to reflect 1,000s of bikes. I asked a bike chopper type person what happens to the bikes. He said “recycle”. Are our bikes being turned into scrap metal? (and being sent to Asia to return as new bikes?)
Does any one know what is happening to all the “disappeared” bicycles?

Caesar
Guest
Caesar

I have a lot to learn about bike locks: http://www.bicycling.com/news/featured-stories/smash-lab-bike-locks-broken
How depressing.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I have locked my bikes using U locks since Kryptonite started (back when the U was a flat strap of steel). I’ve never lost a bike. But I am pretty paranoid about them – take off the front wheel and trap it in the U, never leave a bike out overnight, etc. And my bikes are old (“vintage”) and not the most appealing theft targets.

I think if everyone used U locks and did so properly, the bike theft here would be cut by 3/4. It would be pros, and component pilferers.

John R.
Guest
John R.

Because the problem is with how you lock your bike and not with bike theft?

Caesar
Guest
Caesar

It’s multifactorial. Many ways to combat the problem.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Which do you personally have some control of though?

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Anyhow, if such an ordinance seems like a good idea, anyone have a suggestion for how at the city I should contact to propose it?

Caesar
Guest
Caesar

Very informative review of bike locks:

http://thesweethome.com/reviews/best-bike-lock/

Dan
Guest
Dan

The best bike lock is a bike LOCKER.

gutterbunnybikes
Guest
gutterbunnybikes

Not to offend anyone here, but I’d much rather see PPD take on traffic enforcement issues over bike theft.

Loss of a bike is a hassle, no doubt. But speeding, distracted driving, and a myriad of other issues with how people operate their motor vehicles is life threatening.

mike
Guest
mike

PPD can’t do just ‘one thing’. Trading traffic enforcement for theft issues or theft issues for violent crime. The point many people here are making is that the cause and cure are multifaceted and therefore have many, often simple ways, to start to address the issue. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that PPD only spend time on bike theft issues at the expense of other problems.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

It isn’t a either/or. PPB should know where all the larger outdoor bike stashes / chop shops are. It’s not really a secret. They could sweep them all up in a couple of weeks.

My Magic Hat
Guest
My Magic Hat

You know what would make the biggest difference? Locking our bikes with something other than glorified dental floss. Cables don’t work. Learn to use a real lock and lose the QR’s.

It seems like every time I hear someone bitch about a stolen bike and someone has the audacity to ask how it was locked, there is a silent pause and an answer that includes a cheap cable or no lock at all.

Understand This: Portland is developing into a “real city”. If anyone can clip your lock with a shop grade cable cutter, carry cab fare or get a better lock.

If I can leave a bike locked downtown overnight without issue, there should be no problem for most reasonable parking stints.

Bryan Hance (The Bike Index)
Guest

Cable locks are a huge part of the problem but we’re still getting many bikes stolen from break-ins to basements, businesses, homes, garages, storage units, cars, bike shops … you name it. And we get a fair amount of entries where the U lock is forced, the thing it’s locked to is defeated, etc. or the bike is otherwise taken with the U lock still on the frame to be removed elsewhere. So, yeah, cable locks suck and need to go away but the theft problem’s going to persist no matter what the locking mechanism is.

David McCabe
Guest
David McCabe

I have had a bike stolen that was locked with a good U-lock. Harder, yes, but still not very hard.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

I posted this last week, and apparently a word I used sent it to moderation, where it was never seen again:

Someone “in the know” explained to me why theft is so out of control….Multnomah County is not interested in taking property crime seriously. They affect the punishment for getting caught stealing. PPB only affects the incidence of it – the prevalence won’t drop until thieves start facing harsh jail time. Through lenient sentencing, DA policies, and MCDC overcrowding, theft is perpetuated, because thieves don’t face any real consequences.

The cops can only do so much when the County does so little to punish thieves. When someone is arrested for theft, they matrix out (and don’t have to pay bail) of MCDC immediately after being booked, and they go straight back to stealing. When they plead, their punishment is minimal, and those who are jailed once again matrix out lickity-split. The thieves know it, so they can openly spend all day long skulking around, looking for cable-locked bikes, bags in cars, and things in yards – and there’s a lot of them doing this. They know as long as they don’t steal a car or break into a house, they face no real consequences. Take the “Santa Claus” bike thief from last year who got charged with several counts of felony theft – he was released by the end of the week.

I’m sure the PPB is frustrated when they take a bike thief or car prowler to MCDC, only to see them back on the street before their shift is over.

TL;DR – Nothing comes out of PPB arresting bike thieves nor will it, because the crooks face little chance of jail time. All because Multnomah County does not take property crime seriously.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Remember–cable locks aren’t “better than nothing;”–they ARE nothing.

Dmitriy Zasyatkin
Guest

I propose we start posting pictures of bike thieves, like “America’s Most Wanted” so if you see one of them, then you could call them out, like “Whats up Bike Thief”, to break their cover.

Also, I think most people are probably too afraid to say something when they see sketchy dudes messing with bikes, but if they would draw any kind of attention to the situation, there would probably be a big response from nearby bystanders.

CaptainKarma
Guest
CaptainKarma

Wish it were so, but people even get murdered and bystanders do nothing…. But I totally agree with the picture thing. Take photos, print them out, laminate, and post on telephone poles, too high so the perp can’t pull them down. Sort of public shaming.

J_R
Guest
J_R

I hadn’t seen the signs offering to buy bikes, but if I do, I plan to pull them down. If we all do so, maybe it will help a little. I’ve lost three bikes over the years. All thefts were in the days before the invention of U-locks. All were locked with medium duty chains.

Paul
Guest
Paul

I’ve pulled about 60 of those fliers down. It took a few days to decide to do it but it’s just too shady, no way they aren’t clearing stolen bikes. They were densely posted in areas where people camp overnight, facing towards the sidewalk and those areas specifically.