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Preventing and Dealing with Bicycle Theft

Bike theft is a big problem in the Bay Area – as it is in most cities – with several thousand bikes being stolen each year in San Francisco alone. Although we do not commonly represent clients who have been the victim of bicycle theft (we are personal injury attorneys who represent injured cyclists, usually after being hit by a car in a car accident) we frequently receive questions about what victims of bicycle theft can do.

Some good news is that bike theft in San Francisco has been trending down slightly, but there are proactive steps you can take to help prevent bicycle theft, and to make it more likely you’ll get your bike back if it is stolen.

Register Your Bicycle

Registering your bicycle is required in some cities and counties. But registering your bicycle with the Bike Index is a good idea no matter where you live. Bike Index is the largest free bicycle registry. Just submit your contact information, your bicycle manufacturer, serial number, and component information to register your bicycle.

Then, if your bike is stolen, report it as stolen to Bike Index. This will flag your bicycle as stolen for the law enforcement, bike shops, and other organizations that partner with Bike Index.

In addition to registering your bicycle, it’s a good idea to take photos of it, and keep any receipts you have for your bicycle frame or components. Photos of you with the bicycle will help you prove ownership, especially if you don’t have receipts or didn’t register the bicycle.

And if you don’t want to register your bicycle, at least write down its serial number in a secure location. That way, if your bike is stolen, you can report the theft to the police and law enforcement, pawn shops, and others will be able to reference the serial number to help get your bike back.

Bicycle Thief Strategies

Thieves have devised all sorts of ways to steal even bicycles that are locked. Knowing these tactics can help you out-smart thieves.

  • The lift – If you lock your bicycle onto a sign or post, a thief may be able to lift your bicycle and lock straight up over the post or sign. They may even pull the post out of the ground if it is not secured tightly.
  • The lever – If there is space between your bicycle and the lock, thieves may be able to pry the metal and break the lock.
  • The hammer – It is possible to use a hammer and chisel to break some types of locks, especially if the lock is hanging or touching the ground.
  • The deconstruct – Thieves may steal your bicycle by undoing screws and bolts to release the frame or tire.
  • The bait-n-wait – A thief may remove just a portion of your bicycle hoping that you will leave it and return later. This will give them all day or night to take the rest of your bicycle. Try not to leave your bicycle unattended if this happens.

Lock Your Bike Securely

Locking your bicycle securely, every time you leave it, is the best step you can take to prevent theft.

There are lots of great resources for learning to lock your bicycle as securely as possible – the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has a helpful video and Bike East Bay even offers a free workshop on preventing bike theft.

But the basics include:

  1. Use a small, hardened steel U-lock to secure the rear wheel and rear triangle of the bicycle frame. The more snug the fit of the U-lock around the wheel, frame, and bicycle rack, the harder it will be for a thief to break the lock.
  2. Secure the bicycle only to a secure, immovable object that a thief cannot just lift the bicycle and lock over – preferably a bicycle rack.
  3. To secure the front wheel, either use a second lock (a cable attached to the rear U-lock, or a second U-lock), or remove the front wheel and use one U-lock to secure the back wheel, front wheel, and rear triangle of the bike frame together. You can also attach the front wheel with keyed, locking skewers.
  4. Use a cable or locking skewers to prevent thieves from taking your bicycle seat as well.

Report Your Bike Stolen

If your bicycle is stolen, the first thing you should do is take a photo of the location where your bike was stolen, and jot down some notes about the time and location of the theft.

Next, report it to your local police, using a non-emergency number or online form, if your jurisdiction has one. (Both San Francisco and Oakland have online reporting options for reporting bicycle theft). While many people don’t report their bike stolen because they think there is no chance of having it returned, San Francisco police has hundreds of stolen bikes in storage with no way of tracking down the owners. They have to rely on victims of bike theft to report and come looking for their bicycle,

If you have registered your bicycle with Bike Index, or another registry, report it as stolen to the registry.

Search For Your Stolen Bike

Bike thieves almost always steal bikes to sell them. Search on Craigslist bikes for your stolen bicycle, and try searching local flea markets. If you think you have found your bike, use your serial number to confirm. Look for online groups for people whose bicycles have been stolen.

Renters’ or Homeowners’ Insurance

If you have renters’ or homeowners’ insurance, you can take comfort as a cyclist – although you should read your policy or talk to your insurance agent to make sure you understand exactly what your policy covers. Renters’ and homeowners’ insurance covers possessions inside your home – so if your bicycle is stolen from your home, you will be able to get a new bicycle up to the full replacement cost of your bicycle or the limits of your policy.

In the more likely even that your bicycle is stolen when it is not inside your home, your insurance will still likely cover it, depending on the exact type of policy you have.

In order to make an insurance claim, you will need a police report. Proof of ownership of the bicycle, like photos of you with it or receipts, will also help.

While we are on the topic of insurance, read here on why we strongly recommend that you consider a UIM policy, particularly if you’re a cyclist!

Avoid Buying a Stolen Bike

Help your fellow cyclists by avoiding buying a stolen bicycle when you buy a used bike off of Craigslist, eBay, or other websites.

Read ads critically. Does the ad contain the kind of information you would include in an ad for a bicycle that you owned, rode, and loved? Is the price in the right range for the bike? Thieves often sell bicycles at a very low price in order to sell them quickly. You can check the price against similar bikes for sale, or use the Bicycle Blue Book.

When you find a bike that you’re interested in, reach out to the seller with questions. Ask for the serial number, and check it against bikes reported as stolen on Bike Index or other websites (try just entering the serial number into Google to see if any results come up).

Ask specific questions about the bicycle that an owner would be likely to know – like what they like and don’t like about the bike, why they’re selling it, whether any components have been replaced, and what maintenance has been done on the bike.

If everything seems to check out, and you decide to meet up in person, follow up on the information you received. Double check the serial number, ask some of the same questions and see if the answer is consistent. You can of course be friendly and polite rather than making it feel like an interrogation. A true fellow cyclist should appreciate your diligence.

Finally, look for any damage that might indicate that a bike lock had been cut through, like unexplained gouges on the frame.