Free Ride II

Is Bike Theft a Profession?

If it’s not obvious already, it’ll be plenty clear come spring: Washington is experiencing a bicycling revolution, with increasingly large hordes of carefree riders crowding bike-laned streets and infuriating the steering-wheel-grippers behind them. But appearing along with the riders will be that predatory companion group, the bike thieves. As biking has grown in the city, so has theft, with what seems like virtually every rider able to recount a story of a loved-but-lost cycle. 

What’s unresolved, though, is where the ripped-off bikes wind up. 

Professional Bike Thieves in DC?

Talk to folks around town and you’ll hear two opinions. In the first camp are the “crime of opportunity” people, who think most theft occurs impulsively and that the stolen bikes are quickly and cheaply sold here. The second, smaller group believes the city’s two-wheelers are targeted by professional bike thieves, some from out of town, on the lookout for high-cost vehicles. 

I fall into the latter group. While it certainly sounds plausible that most stolen bikes stick around the District, I can’t help but imagine there’s a troop of savvy folks who see bike theft as a very lucrative profession. After all, in some ways it’s the ideal crime: relatively easy to pull off, with loot that is in high demand. And while MPD says it’s concerned about stolen bikes in DC, the officers in reality have many other issues to attend to, and few cases are followed up on in detail. 

There’s not a ton of evidence to back up the professional bike thievery theory. True, Los Angeles police reported busting a high-end bike theft ring just over a year ago, and the National Bike Registry writes on its website that “substantial numbers of stolen bicycles are exported on barges through the Port of Miami. Customs officials have also noted shipments of both bicycles and bicycle parts through New Jersey.” But its citations are 15 years old. 

Still, I’m not the only person who thinks that professional bike thieves operate here. “When I first started couriering,” I was told by a mechanic at 7th Street NW’s Bicycle Space, who declined to give her name, “people said, ‘Don’t free-lock up your bike because a couple times each summer vans come down from New York and take all the free-locked bikes they can find.” Her colleague nodded, and added, “All of the mechanics think there are professional bike thieves. They go to Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, and the bikes they steal there come here.”

Nonetheless, my efforts to find evidence for a ring of professional thieves proved fruitless until I heard Robert Schafer’s story. 

Firsthand Experience with the Pros

Besides being a young DC professional and Trinidad resident, Schafer is a bicycle obsessive. He fixes neighborhood kids’ bikes and usually has a decent-sized collection of vehicles in his garage. Last summer Schafer had at least ten bikes stored there: a couple of commuter bikes, a few beaters, and a racing bike worth around $5,000. But he was taking precautions; he’d recently hired a welder to install an iron security door with a strong lock. “Just in case, I also locked all of the bikes inside the garage,” explained Schafer. 

One August night thieves broke in. With Schafer and his wife sleeping nearby the robbers got through the iron door. “They must’ve spent a couple hours inside, cutting cable locks, cutting U locks, breaking cinder blocks that were locked to bikes,” said Schafer. “They were pretty professional about it.” The thieves took nine bikes. 

You’ve got to feel for Schafer: two weeks before the bike incident, his car had been stolen. But his bicycle saga has a small happy ending. In search of a replacement bike on Craigslist, Schafer came across a photo of one of his stolen cycles, a fixed gear worth around $800. The item was listed for sale by a consignment shop in Severna Park, just north of Annapolis. 

“I contacted the police. They said they were going to try to send someone to the shop to put a hold on the bike, but they had to talk to their lawyers,” remembered Schafer. “But that took more than a month.” So he took matters into his own hands and contacted the proprietor himself. While Schafer didn’t have the cycle’s serial number, he could describe its details intimately. The owner replied, “OK, that’s definitely your bike,” said Schafer. 

It turned out that the shop’s owner had bought the bike for $100 at Brumwell’s Flea Market in Pasadena, Maryland, not far from Severna Park. Brumwell’s is a massive market covered by few regulations; vendors set up on a first come, first served basis, no paperwork required. In this case the bicycle sellers apparently showed up for two consecutive weekends with a big rented truck packed with cycles. “There were hundreds of bikes under a huge tent, ten guys [working], selling for cash,” Schafer said the store owner told him. Then they disappeared.

Although Schafer is busy rebuilding his bicycle collection (and has installed an alarm system in the garage), he found the experience demoralizing. “The most frustrating thing is that it sounds like what these guys do, they’re pretty professional,” he said. “I’ve had lots of bikes stolen, but they were mostly crimes of opportunity. I never suspected it could be like this.” 

For anyone who imagines that a ring of professional bike thieves operates in the District, Schafer’s story is exhibit A. But it’s an uncommon one, and  hard to know just how methodical the thieves who targeted him are. Still, there are some steps cyclists can take to protect themselves. 

What You Can Do to Prevent Theft

The easiest thing? Lock your bike. Believe it or not, it’s a problem. “People just lean them up against a fence or leave them in the backyard and think that’s secure, and it’s not,” said MPD’s First District Commander, Daniel Hickson. Alternatively, a surprising number of people use flimsy cables to secure their bikes, said Denise D’Amour, co-owner of Capitol Hill Bikes. “We strongly advise them not to if they want to hang onto their bikes.”

But even a U-lock isn’t tamperproof. Loren Copsey, co-owner of H Street NE’s Daily Rider store, tried getting through one with an electric cutting tool. “I went through [a Kryptonite] in two minutes and 45 seconds,” he said. Of course, it produced sparks and noise that might draw attention, but nonetheless, he said, “there’s no foolproof lock that will protect you from absolutely everything. You’re just buying yourself time.” 

Still, any lock is more effective if the bike is parked in a well-trafficked area, not under a stairwell or in an alley. Avoid Metro bike racks, where thieves can safely assume commuters will be gone all day. Finally, gather as much information as you can about your bike before it’s stolen. If it’s nabbed you can tell the police all about it. 

If your bike is stolen? Call the cops right away. Even if they never find your beloved vehicle, getting a police report is useful, particularly if you have renter’s insurance. Second, check regularly to see if your cycle turns up in MPD’s collection of recovered cycles. The department is holding more than 500 bikes in its warehouse, most of which are represented in photos on its Flickr site, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpd_evidencecontroldivision/sets/.

Finally, if you really want to cut down on bike theft in the District don’t support the stolen cycle market. If you’re buying a used bicycle on Craigslist, for example, “do your homework and ask good questions, like ‘Why are you selling it, and how long have you had it?’” said Greg Billing, WABA’s advocacy coordinator. After all, he added, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”