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Crime and No Punishment
Bicycle Theft in America

Part I: The Current Situation

The Current Situation
The Victims
The Thieves
The Buyers
Effect on the Bicycle Industry
Insurance Industry Point of View
Bicycle Registration

Part II: Best Practices-What can be done now to prevent bicycle crime?

The Best Physical Prevention
Curing the Registration System
Other New Technology
District Attorney and Police Best Practices
The Police Station
Legislative Changes
What the bicycle industry must do
Connectivity

Part I

 

The Current Situation

In the United States, thousands of bicycles disappear each day, never to be seen by their owners again.1 These owners shed tears, rail against the sky, and then go out and buy a crummy bike to get around on.

Despite its lack of attention to the issue, the federal government is aware of the abundance of bicycle thefts in the U.S. The 1995 Uniform Crime Report states that bicycle theft is one of only two categories of larceny and theft that is increasing in this country.2 Local police know about and are frustrated by it. They can’t do anything, because they don’t have the tools.

Something must be done about this $200,000,000 per year national disgrace.

 

The Victims

The victims of bicycle theft tend to be people who use their bicycles: students, commuters, hobbyists, hard-core riders, and children. Most bicycle crime occurs in cities where there are colleges and universities. Bicycle thefts increasingly involve violence and bike jacking, and there have been reports of stabbing, beatings, and even murder.3

 

The Thieves

How they work

Most bicycles are stolen from places owners assume are safe. Experienced thieves can take even locked bikes in about 10-20 seconds. Bolt cutters will cut most chains and cables, and U-style locks are broken by inserting scissors-style car jack inside the U and cranking.

Who the thieves are

Very little evidence exists about the thieves themselves. Most information comes from journalists and is at best anecdotal. Nevertheless, Centric Media has formulated theories based on these journalists’ articles and interviews with law enforcement officials.

Within the drug trade, stolen bicycles are so common they can almost be used as currency. On the streets, the value of a stolen bicycle is approximately 5-10% of the bicycle’s original retail value, with an inverse relationship between value and percentage worth on the street. According to numerous interviews with industry insiders, the percentage goes up as the value goes down; a bicycle that sells for $200 new will sell for $20 on the street when stolen, and a new $2500 chromealloy machine will sell for as low as $125.

In most U.S. cities, bicycle-theft rings are organized to steal bikes and sell them on the street, at flea markets, and to receivers of stolen goods, i.e. fences.4

 

The Buyers

Rumors and assumptions are more common than facts in reports on where stolen bicycles are disposed of. Many eventually end up in police property rooms, without being returned to their owners. There is some evidence, however, about what happens to the others.

Export

Reliable sources indicate that substantial numbers of stolen bicycles are exported on barges through the Port of Miami.5 Customs officials have also noted shipments of both bicycles and bicycle parts through New Jersey.6 General rumors abound that many bicycles are taken into Mexico and Southeast Asia.

 

Effect on the Bicycle Industry

A casual observer might consider all this theft good for the bicycle industry. If a bicycle is stolen, then that bike’s owner has to go out and buy a new bike. But the effect of bicycle theft is to poison the market. Overall spending is lowered due to the risk factor. Customers concerned about theft tend to buy lower quality bikes or not to buy bicycles at all. If there were fewer stolen bikes in the marketplace, the people who now buy stolen goods would instead buy legitimate used ones for not that much money more, thereby further bolstering the value of good new bikes, which would have a higher resale value. The industry would restabilize at a higher dollar volume of business.

The bottom line is: people would spend more on bikes and use them more frequently if they weren’t constantly worried they were going to get ripped off.9

 

Insurance Industry Point of View

Centric Media, publisher of BicycleLINK, is a large consumer of insurance services. In that capacity, BicycleLINK’s parent contacted four different research bureaus of the insurance industry as well as several of the largest property insurers through the offices of its insurance broker and conducted research on the Web and in libraries throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. None of these efforts resulted in information regarding reports to or amounts paid by the insurance industry to compensate bicycle theft victims.

A priori, it is obvious that the insurance industry has a vested interest in combating this crime. Not only would effective registration and lost bicycle recovery reduce industry losses, but the ability to trace stolen bicycles would help identify the owners of other recovered stolen items that cannot be as easily registered and tracked as bicycles.

 

Bicycle Registration

Current laws

California law is the basis for this discussion, although there is anecdotal evidence that the California practice is fairly typical. Details may vary considerably.

Most of the laws controlling bicycles can be found in the Vehicle Code. California law10 offers bicycle registration to city governments that choose to adopt ordinances regulating bicycle registration. Those governments typically delegate the task of registration to either the police or fire departments, referred to below as “the police.” The registering department typically fills out a standard registration card. The licensing agency is required to keep the record for the year the registration is valid. There is no requirement that the agencies share this information with one another, nor is there any provision establishing a statewide licensing information clearing house.11

Every bicycle has a unique manufacturer’s serial number. In California, state law also mandates that each bicycle should have an individually numbered license, plus an individually numbered renewal sticker. It is illegal to remove or alter any registration sticker or manufacturer’s serial number.12 Trial courts reportedly have held that a partially removed registration sticker constitutes probable cause that a bicycle is stolen.13

California requires dealers to supply each purchaser with a filled-out registration form, which the purchaser is required to send in.14 But this law is generally ignored and goes without enforcement.15

Unclaimed bicycles must be kept for a minimum of 90 days,16 but if they are identified as stolen property, they must be kept for six months.17 During this period, police have a duty to identify the owner if that identity “can be reasonably ascertained.”18 There is currently no clearing house of registration information to which police can turn to identify owners efficiently and effectively, so there is no evidence that police currently put substantial effort into doing so.

California allows police departments to use unclaimed bicycles in department store toy giveaway programs or to donate them to the poor. In other jurisdictions, unclaimed bicycles may be given to bicycle theft victims.

Police or fire station registration.

In most California jurisdictions, the registration provided by statute takes place in the jurisdiction’s fire or police station. We observed a typical case: the police associate or trainee comes in on Saturday morning and takes 2 - 5 registrations. That person has no written procedure and goes on what her predecessor has explained. She takes the registration in writing or on a computer, or both. From the triplicate form, the Police keep two, and one is sent to the state. The accounting department takes care of the fee that is collected.

More and more campus police are now using local registration systems to raise awareness and discourage theft.

Electronic registration

There are many organizations that provide registration services. In addition to Bicyclelink.com, organizations that use the Internet are listed below along with their Web addresses.

Bicycle Transportation Alliance http://www.bta4bikes.org

Bike1 http://www.bike1.com

Bike Guard http://www.vinguard.org

Crime-on-line http://www.crime-on-line.com

Global Neighborhood http://www.911find.net

I.D. Link http:// www.idlink.com

National Bike Registry http://www.nationalbikeregistry.com

Except for the instant efforts of BicycleLINK, there is no good central location for registration information. BicycleLINK offers a realistic opportunity to help those in possession of a lost or stolen bicycle to find its owner.

Chances of recovery

Stolen bicycles are rarely returned to their owners. Seldom, if ever, is ownership checked in the second-hand bicycle market. While the police locate and seize many bicycles, few are registered and, of these, police can only identify those owners who their own department originally registered. That registration computer does not connect to anywhere else. Even where registration information is sent out of the precinct to Sacramento, these pieces of paper are placed in a drawer without being entered into any useable database. What that means is that, if a stolen bike is registered in San Francisco, but transported and found in South San Francisco, a different city, the police in South San Francisco will not find the bicycles owner.

University of California at Berkeley19 statistics indicates that only 2-3% of stolen bicycles are returned to their owners. Some surveys, however, suggest that in a more isolated setting, where a single entity maintains information about registered and stolen bicycles, the recovery rate can be much higher.20

This imperfect system has led to disillusionment with the process. Bicycle storeowners flout the law requiring registration. Police investigators do not think chasing down stolen bikes is going to lead anywhere. Detectives don’t bother to put information regarding stolen bikes in the Automated Property System (APS), which is the nationwide listing of stolen property.21 Bikes pile up in property rooms, thieves have nothing to fear, and owners of stolen bikes are without recourse in trying to find their property and powerless to change the situation.

Part II: Best Practices-What can be done now to prevent bicycle crime?

 

The Best Physical Prevention

Owners should:

1. Lock as much of the bike as possible. Remove the front wheel if there
    is quick release; put it next to the back wheel; run the lock through
    both rims, the frame, and a parking meter.22

2. Use a U-shaped lock.

3. Lock the bicycle to something that can’t be broken or ripped out of the
    ground. Make sure a thief can’t lift the bike off the mount (such as off a
    pole).

4. Lock the bicycle in a lighted, visible place where there is plenty of
    pedestrian traffic.

5. Consider making the bicycle less attractive (by putting some ugly tape
    on it, for example) or purchasing a bike with a simple, nondescript
    paint job. The more the bike stands out, the more likely it will disappear.

6. Make sure the lock is not near the ground where it can be hammered.

7. Do not leave the bicycle unlocked in a garage directly visible off the
    sidewalk. Keep the bicycle locked to the garage.

Many thefts occur in unlighted areas with little pedestrian traffic. Many others result when owners leave bicycles unlocked because they think the area is safe (e.g., the balcony of an apartment building).

 

Curing the Registration System

Standardizing the serial numbers

The Chicago Police Department has proposed that the bicycle industry develop a standard serial number.23 An automobile’s vehicle identification number provides a description of the automobile. A similar, shorter number-a Bicycle Identification Number (BIN)-can provide identification and pinpoint important information, such as the model year, which is not currently determinable.

As discussed above, many public and private providers now offer bicycle registration. Currently, however, there is no central database to check bicycle registration. The recoverer of a stolen bike will locate the owner only by the slim chance that he or she checks the same database where the bike was originally registered.

With the advent of the Internet, however, a nationwide registration system can work in the following manner.

Minimum standards for registration field

The standard fields in the registration form should include:

Personal Information

Name:
Street:
Address:
City:
State Province:
Postal Code:
Country:
Phone:
Fax:
Email:
Personal Code (mother's maiden name recommended):

Bicycle Information

Brand:
Model:
Year:
Color:
Serial Number:
Special Features/ Components:
Comments:

Additional numbers for the license or the renewal are not necessary and serve only to complicate registration.

Reasonably priced

If bicycle registration cost as much as car registration (i.e., tens to hundreds of dollars per year), no one would do it. In order to keep registration costs low, transaction costs must be low, too, or the system is not going to work.

It is not practical to charge annually, and charges must be reasonable compared to the costs of providing the service over time. Providers’ registration systems must be simple and practical in order to achieve the transaction economies necessary to offer a long-term, inexpensive registration.

A service that relies on people taking information in person or over an 800 toll free phone line does not appear to be financially feasible unless the operation is underwritten by taxpayers. Registering and recovering bicycles costs money. Past failures to offer a nationwide recovery system have resulted from costs that exceed revenues over time.

A bicycle’s recovery can be effected for a reasonable amount of money using computers and the Internet. For example, effective November 1, 1998, BicycleLINK.com charges $10 for a 10-year guaranteed registration, so long as the consumer does the registration and transfer.

Consumer Friendly

The consumer must be able to use the system. For that to happen on a widespread basis, the system must be:

1. Easy to implement in the field: Owners should be able to install labels
    easily and properly. Documentation for permanent filing must
     accompany each registration.

2. Easy to transfer: Buyer and seller should be able to transfer ownership
    on-line or by mail.

3. Connected: Someone who recovers a stolen bicycle must have a
    reasonable opportunity to search the registration database in which the
    bicycle is registered. The information should have connectivity with
    other databases.

 

Other New Technology

New technology falls into three categories: labeling, locking, and security.

Labeling

In the U.S., 3M and other companies have developed a variety of adhesive labels that work reasonably well for bicycle labeling, though none appears to be foolproof. BicycleLINK continues to work with these manufacturers to improve the adhesivity of their labels. The best practice is to apply labels properly. Since this is the REGISTRATION, it is worthwhile to know.

1. Pick an obvious place on the frame.

2. Clean and dry the substrate, ideally with a grease cutting compound
    such as acetone. At a minimum, clean the part with a cloth and water
    and/or soap and let dry completely.

3. Make sure the substrate is at a minimum of 65 degrees Fahrenheit (19
    degrees Centigrade), which, in cold weather, can be achieved with a
    hair dryer.

Better practice is to etch proof of registration under the label. Chemical etches or electric pencils are standard inventory at police stations and constitute a virtually foolproof method of permanently marking the bike as registered. Of course, the best solution is for manufacturers to provide each bike with a BIN number so consumers will not need a sticker at all.

Until recently in China, one could leave a bicycle on the street without fear of theft. In recent years, however, an epidemic of bicycle theft (as well as an invasion of automobiles) has transformed transportation mores. The Chinese police are trying to enforce licensing to combat the thefts. The Chinese label is a two-part license consisting of a rectangular fixed portion and a removable center circle.24 Police stop and seize bikes that are missing the center portion of the license.

Locking

The Kryptonite® U-shaped lock remains the industry leader.

In France, Cycleeurope (Peugeot, Gitane, and others) offers a self-locking bicycle with a built-in wheel lock and saddle lock. Some models come with an insurance policy, which, no surprise here, has numerous carve-outs.25

Certain designs are underway for the self-locking bike, one of which includes telescoping handlebars.26

Security

Security basically involves parking lot design. In fact, a thorough review of the literature convinced the editors of BicycleLINK that one of the easiest methods to reduce bicycle theft is to introduce specially designed bicycle parking lots. We preliminarily concluded that such parking lots could charge a market rate to keep bicycles secure at destinations.27 Most of these designs are inexpensive for companies and organizations that are already concerned with automobile parking. The chief design elements are chain link fences, code entry, racking, and a level of security personnel that will keep the fox from the chicken coop. For areas that require only a few bicycle-parking spaces, the very secure Bikelid (http://www.bikelid.com) works well.

Insurance

Some models of Kryptonite® locks come with an insurance policy that guarantee’s against theft. In general, that policy requires that the lock be recovered. If the bicycle is stolen with the lock on, or the thieves dispose of the lock to avoid detection, the company will not reimburse the owners.

Several outfits offer specialized policies.28

 

District Attorney and Police Best Practices

The Public doesn’t get worked up over a $250 crime. District attorneys face terrible perpetrators of murder or rape; comparatively, a bicycle thief appears to commit a peccadillo. This crime is occurring, however, at epidemic levels. And while no single case is of that great an import, taken as a whole, bicycle theft constitutes a crime wave as serious as shoplifting, computer theft, jewelry theft, and marijuana smoking.

The following are the specific steps that prosecutors can take to assist a nationwide program to reduce bicycle theft.

Awareness and Resolve

A prosecutor’s office needs to approach this crime as a serious systemic problem that can be addressed professionally and minimized. This epidemic disproportionately hurts our youth and hard working people.

Prosecutorial investigation

Approximately 800,000 bicycles are disappearing each year. Who is bringing them back to market? That investigation will lead to areas such as the drug trade, couriers, and export, as discussed above. Specific inquiries within each jurisdiction would result in finding different groups and individuals responsible for stolen bicycles.

Connectivity

With the advent of the Web, administration officials need to weigh the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of bicycles listed in APS. If files on bicycle thefts were not kept confidential, then, bicycle theft victims could check to see if their bicycles have been recovered anywhere in the United States.

 

The Police Station

Public education

Public awareness of the risks of bicycle theft, the tricks of the trade, and the steps owners can take to protect their bicycles is extremely important.

Apprehension of thieves

Signal-emitting silicon chips offer an interesting way to apprehend and track bicycle thieves with an electronic “Trojan horse”.29 A very nice unclaimed bicycle out of the property room is locked in a likely location with a tag inside. The tag emits an electronic signal the police can track once the bicycle is stolen.

Property room management

Police property room law and practice vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In California, most property rooms either hold bikes until the department holds an auction or until they have enough bicycles for an outside auctioneer to come in.

In most cases, the owners of stolen bicycles are not found. Bicycles back up in the property room but don’t stack or compress together well. In fact, many bikes are badly stored and end up being sold for parts or at very low prices.

Contract outside parking or storage companies or agencies to store unclaimed bicycles properly. Proper storage means investing in cost-efficient racks placed in a secure area, such as an attended parking lot or shed. The additional proceeds from auctioning better bike sales will pay for the improvement, and the embarrassment of wrecking thousands of bikes every year will be avoided.

Registration

Finally, the police can improve their chances of finding the owner’s of stolen bikes. The police departments can insist on a policy that detectives list recovered bicycles in the APS. More importantly, by connecting to other databases, departments can be assured they have done the best job that can be done. Then, they can consider moving the bikes out of storage as rapidly as legally possible.

Buying good stickers for the registration program is quite important. The average bicycle sticker is not very good. The best ones are quite good but can be removed with about 30 minutes of painstaking work. Some registrars solve this problem by providing up to six stickers. Police stations are equipped with chemical or electrical etching equipment, which can be used in conjunction with stickers. Finally, knowing the proper installation procedures (see above) provides assurance that the stickers will adhere.

Use stolen bicycles for good before they are ruined

Bicycles do not have a pretty history in police property rooms. Unfortunately, bicycles are sensitive machines, and a little problem can become a big problem when you are going downhill at 25 miles per hour. In many jurisdictions, police are empowered by law to donate unclaimed bicycles to youth programs, toy giveaways, and bicycle theft victims. The best thing for the owner, the department, and the bicycle is for the police to search thoroughly for the owner and then if the search fails, make use of the bike while it is still in good condition.

The bottom line

Police departments are the organizations most involved in and the most frustrated by bicycle theft. The number one action for police departments to take is to get ready to make a minor investment in computer gear and programming to tie into a nationwide system.

 

Legislative Changes

Jurisdictions such as California that call for issuing licenses with individualized numbers should reexamine the policy behind the rule. It is much better to use a make and serial number-based registration system.

Some legislators that argue instituting a $35 fine for a failure to register a bicycle will spur people to register their bikes. Not surprisingly, the son of at least one such legislator had his unregistered bike ripped off.30

In the event current legislation does not alter the situation, legislation should be introduced that punishes businesses that do not exercise reasonable care to make sure their employees or contractors are not using stolen bicycles.

Finally, Legislators should introduce changes to allow the display of found bicycles on the web.

 

What the bicycle industry must do

Manufacturers must adopt a Bicycle Identification Number system for bicycle frames and complete bicycles.31 Such a system ideally would identify the make, model, the model year, and a unique number. The most difficult part of implementing such a system is getting the industry to get together and decide on a standard.

As usual in such matters, the group that has the biggest exposure in this area is the smallest of businesses, the bicycle retailer. California law requires retailers to register bicycles. Virtually no retailer complies. There are two reasons why they don’t: 1. It is a total waste of time because the system doesn’t work; 2. No one can reasonably expect to provide registration for the low amount of money the local licensing authority charges.

 

Connectivity

BicycleLink is currently attempting to convince the authorities to display bicycles that are listed in the APS on a web site that our site and others can link to. We have agreed to publicize the availability of the information to victims at no cost to the government.

Additionally, BicycleLink is underwriting the research required to cache police station, fire station, and private databases within a single researchable system.

The best overall way to prevent theft: make it a non-economic behavior

The reason bicycle theft is so prevalent is that it is a great way to make $35-$50 for 10 seconds of work and a little exercise. The chances of getting caught are nil. The chances something will happen if you do get caught are negligible.

The epidemic will stop when it becomes a non-economic behavior to steal bikes. A bicycle registration system will help do this because, first, stolen bicycles that are registered will become worth less because, if someone inquires about ownership, the bicycle is going to be taken away (and returned to the owner), and someone is going to be in trouble. Second, owners must exercise common sense so that thieves will have to work hard to get through careful physical protection to get bikes. Third, the thief should have to peel off labels and pray no one etched underneath. Finally, force thieves to look at a mandatory strike and 30 days in jail for bicycle theft.

The best news is that an effort is being made today in this area. A concentrated effort can reduce bicycle theft by 80%. We can do this. Help BicycleLINK by subscribing and registering your bike. If you are interested in helping with this project, contact BicycleLINK by e-mailing at nbr@boomerangit.com or by phone at 510-665-0280.

Now that you know...shouldn't you register?


1 The FBI received reports of 504,000 bicycles stolen in 1995. They consider this number to be conservative, as many thefts are not reported. Some experts believe that only between 20% and 50% of actual thefts are reported. This would suggest the actual number of thefts is somewhere in the range of 800,000 to 2,000,000 bicycles stolen each year. Based on more conservative estimates and an average retail bicycle value is approximately $250, this represents $200,000,000 in losses per year.

2 FBI 1995 Uniform Crime Report

3 Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, September 17, 1997, pg. 1A 4 Philadelphia Inquirer, August 17, 1998, Cynthia J. McGroarty, Correspondent

5 e.g., “NBC Dateline”, 9/30/97

6 Interview, Customs Investigator, 10/15/98.

7 “Ripped Off!”, Bicycling Magazine, Rodale Press, August 1994 v35 n8 p40. This piece is one of the best on the subject.

8 “Free Delivery. Your Bike.” New York Magazine, Dec. 5, 1994 v27 n48 p26 by Beth Browde.

9 “Police Struggle Because of Inconsistent Serial Numbers,” Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, October, 1998

10 Cal. Veh. Code §39001(a).

11 Cal. Veh. Code §39005.

12 Cal. Veh. Code §39002(c).

13Dayton Daily News , April 17, 1998, “ Program Helps Deter Bike Thefts”

14 Cal. Veh. Code §39006(a).

15 Even if it were enforced, California law limits to $10 the maximum fine for any violation of any local bicycle registration ordinance. Cal. Veh. Code §39011.

16 Cal. Civil Code §2080.3.

17 Cal. Penal Code §1411.

18 Cal. Penal Code $1411.

19 “1995 Crime Trends UC Berkeley,” http://ucsbuxa.ucsb.edu/Police/

20 “The Bike Theft,” http://www.tread.pair.com/biketheft.html.

21 Previously, California offered the Stolen Bicycle System. That system was incorporated in the APS in June, 1979.

22 A favorite trick is to alter a signpost for easy removal. The thief waits for the owner to carefully lock the bike to the pole; after the owner’s departure, he slides the pole out of the lock, resets the trap, and absconds.

23 “Police Struggle Because of Inconsistent Serial Numbers,” Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, October, 1998

24 Xinhua News Agency (China), December 16, 1997, “New License Plate to Help Prevent Bicycle Theft”

25 The Guardian (London), September 13, 1997 “Have One Bike Stolen, Get One Free”

26 The San Francisco Examiner, November 11, 1997, “This Bicycle Locks Itself”

27 See e.g., The Ottawa Citizen, July 30, 1997, “A Solution to Bike Theft”

28 For example Bikethalon Cycling Concierge, 888-229-2546

29 Aberdeen Press & Journal, June 5, 1998, “Tagged Bike Springs Trap on Thieves”

30 Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), September 17, 1997, “Putting the Brakes on Bike Theft”

31 “Police Struggle Because of Inconsistent Serial Numbers”, Bicycle Retailers & Industry News, October, 1998

Current California Vehicle Code Division 16.7
 
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