How to Get Your Bike Back After It's Been Stolen

Bike theft is a major problem throughout America with an estimated 800,000 to 2 million bikes going missing each year. That's a cost of nearly $50 million—and that's just the small minority of thefts that are actually reported. And with ever increasing numbers of urban commuters forgoing cars for bikes, this silent epidemic only stands to get worse.

Generally, when you come out and you find nothing but a busted lock where your bike was supposed to be, the chances of being reunited with it are slim. Nationwide, less than half of stolen bicycles are recovered by police and barely 5 percent are reunited with their owners. Here's what to do to improve your chances.

Don't Get It Stolen in the First Place

How to Get Your Bike Back After It's Been Stolen

It's a crazy thought, not putting your bike in a position to be taken, but surprisingly effective. It's called the "locking your bike like you want it to be there when you get back" technique.

A vast majority of bike thefts occur because the owner left his or her ride unattended and unlocked, or at least fastened to an insufficiently secure object. It's essential that you get into the habit of locking your bike every time it's out of arm's reach. Every. Single. Time. Locking your bike might take an extra minute or two out of your commute but it sure beats having to walk the return trip.

Don't skimp on your lock purchase and make sure that your lock comes from a reputable company. Only use a heavy-duty U-lock like the OnGuard Bulldog or the Kryptonite Kryptolock or an insulated chain lock like the New York Fahgettaboudit chain. Better yet, use both—lock your frame securely against an object using the chain, then lock your front wheel with a U-lock, and loop an insulated cable around the rear wheel hub and frame.

Where you lock your bike is just as important as how you lock it. Avoid trees and other soft objects that can easily be hacksawed through. Metal objects either too heavy to move or that have been bolted into the cement are ideal. If you're using a traffic pole, make sure its too tall to easily climb as thieves have been known to hoist bikes clean over stop signs to get them off a pole.

Prepare for the Worst

How to Get Your Bike Back After It's Been Stolen

Now, sometimes, even the best laid lock job will go south and some scuzzy criminal type will successfully make off with your ride. Before this happens—preferably before you leave the bike shop after its purchase—take a picture of your new bike, it's serial number, and the sales receipt and upload them to a cloud locker like DropBox.

Next go onto every local, state, and national stolen bicycle registries you can find and add your information to their databases. These registries store the owner's contact information and details about the bike so that police can return the bike if recovered. Here are a few of the larger databases:

And, while you're at it, make sure that you add your new ride to your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy as well.

Release the Hounds

Ok, so, as soon as you're done cursing the heavens for this atrocity against your peddled property, get on the horn and file a police report. You want to get the wheels of justice turning as soon as possible because, typically, those wheels turn incredibly slowly.

Maybe you'll get lucky and the cops will have picked up the perp before he's had a time to strip it, there's no guarantee your bike will be found at all. So don't rely on just the police, start searching the most common places to find fenced product.

Hit up every pawn shop and bike shop in town, bring a picture of your bike and a copy of the serial number. Hell, make flyers and pass them out to each one you visit—it can't hurt. Also, some unscrupulous pawn shops will try to swindle you out of a "recovery fee" or similar such scam for the return of your bike if they happen to have it. This is illegal everywhere in the US so if a pawn shop tries to pull this shit with you, call the cops.

Online, setup notifications on eBay and Craigslist for any bikes with descriptions that match yours. For Craigslist:

  • Run a search for your bike's description. Make sure you includes surrounding cities as well.
  • On the results page, scroll to the very bottom of the page and click on the RSS icon.
  • This will generate an RSS feed that you can plug into Feedly or similar RSS delivery system and get real time updates whenever your bike surfaces.

For eBay, you can either install the store's mobile app and have IM alerts delivered to your phone. As the eBay website explains:

    • Launch the eBay app, and then go to Settings.
    • Select the notifications you want to receive or turn off: Outbid, Watched item ending, or Best Offer. (The Best Offer alert is available only on iPhone and Windows Phone.)
    • In your phone settings, find the notifications option, and turn it on to receive alerts for the eBay app, or you can turn it off if you no longer want to receive alerts. (For details on how to set the notification options on your phone, read the user guide for your device.)

    You can also try poking around police and bus impound lots. While they'll usually notify you if your bike turns up (thanks to that police report you already filed), sometimes things fall through the cracks so it's a good idea to cover all of your bases.

    Round Up a Posse

    How to Get Your Bike Back After It's Been Stolen

    Your efforts alone, unfortunately, aren't likely to be enough. If you want your bike back, like now, you're going to need the biggest microphone you can find to get the word out: Social Media.

    Raise a stink. A giant stink. Hit up every bike crew, courier service, rec group, and alley cat race squad you can find in your town on FB and give them a picture of your bike with an impassioned plea for their help in tracking it down. Do the same on Twitter, Google+, etc and boom, you've suddenly multiplied the number of eyeballs looking for your stolen gear by an order of magnitude.

    And for Twitter specifically, follow the twitter account of your local police bike recover squad—in San Francisco, for example, that's @SFPDBikeTheft—and hit them up with an RT plea. From here on out, it's a waiting game.

    Steal It Back

    Woohoo! Your dragnet came up with a winner and that asshole who ripped off your ride was stupid enough to put it on Craigslist. Now, while the urge to phone up that subhuman and give them a piece of your mind is strong, don't do it. The seller will gladly throw your bike off a bridge or sell it for scrap if there's even a hint of a sting.

    Plus, while that one Redditor did successfully steal her bike back from the thief, remember that went down in Canada. You will get your vigilante ass shot you try to pull something like that in Oakland, so leave the police work to the police. Once you find your bike being advertised, call up the precinct that you filed your report with and talk to whoever is in charge of the case (or at least the desk sergeant), and give them the info. You might be asked to participate in the recovery effort, you might not. Either way, you'll hopefully have your ride back soon. [SFGate - Bike Shepherd - Bicycle Law]