Each year, between 900,000 and two million bicycles—worth some $55 million—are stolen. It’s difficult to determine the precise number of stolen bikes, because most bike theft is never reported to law enforcement. Thus, even though 49% of stolen bikes are recovered by law enforcement, only 5% of stolen bikes are returned to their owners.
Despite these dismal statistics, you can protect your bike, and you can increase your chances of recovering your bike if it is stolen.
How to protect your bike from theft
There are two distinct aspects to protecting your bike: Documentation, and proper locking technique, and both are essential to proper bicycle security.
How to document your bike
It is absolutely essential that you document your bike. Far too many bike owners fail to record the serial numbers on their bikes, or to document any other proof of ownership. If your bike is stolen, you don’t want to be one of those owners. Instead, you want to be the owner who can provide a serial number and other proof of ownership to law enforcement. Begin by establishing a file for each bike you own. Record your serial number and place it in the file. Other documentation in the file should include a receipt for the bike; even if you are buying a used bike, ask for a receipt. If you don’t have a receipt for a bike you already own, repair receipts may serve as evidence of ownership. Keep all receipts for the bike in the file. Take photographs of the bike, including any distinguishing characteristics, and store those in the file as well. If you change the appearance of the bike, document it with additional photographs. Make a digital copy of your file on your hard drive, and keep the bike’s paper file with your other important documents.
Once you have created a file for your bike, you will want to register your bike, preferably with a nationwide registration service.
If you have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, you should also make sure that your bike is included on your policy; be sure to specify that the bike is covered for its full replacement value.
How to prevent your bike from being stolen
Documenting your bike will help you recover your bike if it’s stolen. In order to keep your bike from being stolen in the first place, you will need to practice proper locking technique whenever your bike is not in your immediate possession—every single time. Most stolen bikes are targeted for one simple reason—they were left unlocked and unattended, even if “only for a moment.” Therefore, you must lock your bike whenever it is not in your immediate possession, and preferably, whenever you are not in direct physical contact with it—even if it is at home, in your garage or your yard.
The other two factors that figure prominently in stolen bike reports are improper lock selection, and improper locking technique.
There are only two types of locks you should consider for your bike. One is a u-lock (preferably heavy-duty) made by one of the reputable, brand-name bike lock companies. The other is one of the heavy-duty chain and lock combinations made by the same reputable, brand-name lock companies. Do not use a cable lock or light-duty chain—they can be easily cut, literally within a second of a thief’s attack. Simply put, a cable lock will not deter a bike thief. Don’t waste your money on one—buy a real bike lock instead. In high-risk areas, you may even want to use a combination of a u-lock and a heavy-duty chain; using these two different types of heavy-duty locks together will encourage almost every thief to move on to another, more easily stolen bike.
Once you have a serious bike lock, you will need to use proper locking technique—no lock can prevent theft if it’s used improperly. As an example, many cyclists who have used a good-quality u-lock to lock their bike to a bike rack by the front wheel have returned to find the front wheel still locked to the rack, and the rest of the bike gone.
The rule of thumb you will want to follow is to lock your bike to a metal structure that is securely fastened in cement or otherwise fastened securely to the cement, and which cannot be easily cut or dismantled. If you are locking to a metal pole, make sure that it is securely fastened in cement, or that the bolts are not loose or easily removed. Also, be aware that thieves have been known to remove traffic signs from poles and then slide the bike up over the pole. Never lock your bike to a wooden railing or small tree—thieves have been known to cut through these to remove the bike. Choose a well-lit area with pedestrian traffic. You will want the smallest lock that will secure your bike to a rack. Your u-lock is at its strongest when there is no extra space between the bike, the rack, and the lock in which a thief can slip a lever or a jack. If you have large gaps between the lock and the rack, your lock is too big for the job—get a smaller lock.
What to do if your bike is stolen
If you use a proper lock, and follow proper locking techniques, it is unlikely you will ever lose your bike to a thief. There are simply too many other unlocked or poorly locked bikes out there for a thief to waste time trying to steal your well-locked bike. Still, if you slip up, and your bike is stolen, you can take heart in knowing that nearly half of all stolen bikes are recovered by law enforcement. However, you will need to take some steps if you hope to recover your bike.
First, notify law enforcement by filing a stolen bike report. This is where your file documenting ownership of your bike will first be utilized—you will want to provide law enforcement with the bike’s serial number and a photo of the bike.
Next, you should conduct your own search for the bike. Look on online sites, such as Craigslist and eBay. Be aware that thieves will sometimes steal a bike in one city and advertise it for sale in another city. Some thieves will attempt to evade detection by the owner by providing a vague description of the bike in the ad.
Bring a photo of the bike and make the rounds of the pawn shops and second-hand stores in your area. If a thief tries to sell your stolen bike to them, the may recognize the bike. If they have already bought the bike, the documentation you have filed, along with the stolen bike report, will be proof that the bike is yours, and you will be entitled to recover the bike through procedures established by state law—check with your local law enforcement agency for those procedures. Despite what anyone may tell you, you are not required to pay a pawn shop for return of your stolen bike.
You should also make the rounds of the bike shops in your area. Thieves will sometimes attempt to sell stolen bikes to bike shops, especially if the shop sells used bikes. If you notify the shops, and can provide a photo, the shops may notify law enforcement if they see a bike matching your stolen bike.
Finally, check the police impound yard from time to time—your bike will end up there if it is recovered. Law enforcement should notify you, but just in case they’re not as diligent as you, it won’t hurt to look. Also, check the impound yard of your local transit agency—you’d be surprised how many bikes are left behind on buses.
If you do find your bike, notify law enforcement for assistance in recovering your bike. If law enforcement recovers your bike, they should notify you, based upon the stolen bike report you filed. You will need your stolen bike report and proof that the bike belongs to you before law enforcement will release it to you—thus, the importance of documenting your ownership of the bike and keeping it in a file.