Bike heist spotlights thieves’ evolving modus operandi
on November 13, 2014
In the early morning hours on Sunday, October 26, burglars broke into Bay Area Bikes, a small bike shop on Broadway near downtown Oakland, and fled with half the store’s inventory. Security cameras show the thieves busting through the shop’s laminate glass door and taking off with 46 high-end bicycles, mostly folding bikes.
The crime devastated the small business, setting the store back for $75,000 worth of merchandise. The shop’s co-owner, Clay Wagers, said bike burglaries are somewhat common, but this break-in was unusual. “I’ve never seen anything to this magnitude,” he said.
The brazen crime comes on the heels of a surge in bike interest, as more commuters are ditching their cars for a simpler, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternative. “As a whole, we are seeing a good increase in ridership,” Wagers said. But business owners like Wagers aren’t the only ones tapping into the bike market; criminals are, too. Surveillance footage of the robbery at Bay Area Bikes showed at least six people were involved in the heist. Wagers said he suspects they had at least one large vehicle parked outside, ready for a quick getaway.
This isn’t the first time the shop was burglarized. A break-in at a previous location resulted in the loss of two bikes. But according to local cycling advocates, last month’s burglary was unique in its scope. “This is the first local one in the East Bay recently where there was a break-in and they cleaned it out,” said Robert Prinz, education director for the East Bay Bike Coalition.
Bike theft, of course, is nothing new in the Bay Area, but a crime like this is an indicator that thieves are willing to go to greater lengths to commit the crime— and to come indoors. Prinz said most stolen bikes in the East Bay are taken in street thefts, stolen from racks and public locations like BART stations. But unlike many thefts that occur on the street, which tend to be random and less organized, the burglary at Bay Area Bikes appeared planned. “To take that many folding bikes seems like it was premeditated,” he said. “I don’t think it was part of an organized theft ring, but it was definitely thought out in advance.”
Stealing bikes is becoming a sophisticated process. While many bike crimes resemble the simple street theft depicted in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film The Bicycle Thief, others are looking more like the Italian Job for two-wheelers. Wagers said thieves are moving stolen bikes en masse to cities like San Francisco, where he said there is a huge black market in the area around 7th, 8th, and Market streets. Relocating stolen goods, he said, makes them harder to track for law enforcement, because owners are likely to report the theft to their local police department, not the one in the city where the bike turns up.
And like much else in the digital age, the sale of stolen property is also moving online. Pilfered bikes are showing up for sale on Internet marketplaces like eBay and craigslist. Wagers said that just after the burglary, a local ad for new folding bikes just like the ones stolen from his shop was posted to craigslist. Bike advocates say the resale of stolen bikes online is increasing because of its convenience and low risk for the thieves. “eBay is a little bit more exposed,” Wagers said. “But something like craigslist … it’s unregulated, there’s no oversight and people don’t care if a bike is stolen.”
Online resale of stolen bikes is a well-known problem in the cycling community, and now one company is asking the Internet giants to take action. Project 529 is a web and mobile bike registration and recovery service based in Portland, Oregon. The company is currently gathering signatures for a petition: “Demand eBay and Craigslist Require Serial Numbers on Bike Listings.” They believe that requiring serial numbers to be printed on bicycles and then for those numbers to be posted as part of the advertisement listing their sale would make it easier for victims and law enforcement to identify stolen property.
Many bike manufacturers stamp a serial number onto the frame or near the pedal cranks, and these numbers can be recorded by a registration service like the National Bike Registry, which operates a database law enforcement officials can use when investigating thefts. Project 529 gives users a seven-character code, similar to the license plates on cars. The coded “shields” are placed on bikes and serve as a secondary proof of ownership. “The 529 shields augment a lack of standardization, provide visibility, and provide simplicity in proving it’s yours,” said J. Allard, the company’s CEO. “Thieves hate serial numbers.”
Their petition has over 46,000 signatures, not far from the goal of 50,000 its organizers hope to reach by the end of November. According to Project 529, more than $400 million dollars worth of bikes are stolen in the U.S. every year, and less than 10 percent of those recovered by law enforcement actually make their way back to the rightful owner.
Allard can relate to the plight of Bay Area Bikes. Three years ago his secured garage, equipped with surveillance cameras, was burglarized and the perpetrator took off with his $8,400 bike, which later turned up on eBay. Allard said that when he approached the company, they told him he needed to provide them with a warrant or subpoena in order to release information to him about who submitted the listing for the bike. Then, he said, the police told him they don’t pursue eBay crimes and suggested he place a bid on the stolen bike, set up a meeting with the seller, and contact authorities once a meeting was arranged. “I really became aware of just how screwed up the system is,”Allard said.
He said eBay and craigslist provide great services, but are failing the victims of larceny. “Online marketplaces are terrifically efficient on so many fronts, but that efficiency sometimes can be used improperly by criminals to reduce risk and maximize reward on stolen property,” he said.
Advocates say the biking community is fragmented and should have the same standards, rules and regulations as the auto industry, which Allard said is “a bit more organized.” Vehicle identification numbers and registration are required by law and dramatically reduce robbery because stolen cars can be easily identified. Allard said requiring serial numbers on property is not the ultimate solution to the problem, but it’s a simple and practical step in the right direction and can create a “speed bump” for criminals.
Burglaries, like the shop break-in at Bay Area Bikes, result in greater criminal penalties than street theft, but Allard said that’s a risk thieves are willing to take because of the high-end nature of many newer bikes. Expensive bicycles can be resold on the black market at drastically lower prices than retail and still produce high returns for thieves. Allard said addressing the problem is crucial to the industry. “You’ve got crooks taking low-dollar figures, so it depresses the overall market,” he said. ”Then the victim goes and buys a used, cheap bike because he assumes it will get stolen, and it hurts the industry.”
Another problem for the industry is a lack of data regarding bike theft trends. In Oakland, crimes are classified by type, such as theft, robbery or burglary, not by the item that is stolen. “Because we don’t classify by loss, we can’t say what the trend is for bike theft,” said Officer Frank Bonifacio, a public information officer for the Oakland Police Department. But even if there were statistics on bike crimes, they might not be very useful, said Prinz, because they are under-reported. “It’s hard to know how big [the problem] is, because the vast majority of bikes stolen are not reported,” Prinz said.
So far, Oakland police have recovered six of the bikes taken from Bay Area Bikes and arrested four individuals connected to the crime. According to the OPD, one of the arrests was made at the Laney College flea market where a suspect attempted to sell a stolen bike. Department officials said two individuals have been charged with possession of stolen property.
Wagers and fellow Bay Area Bikes’ owner Glenda Barnhart, an East Bay Bike Coalition board member, are urging local cyclists to participate in a new program to curb bike theft. The coalition is teaming up with Bay Area Rapid Transit for a new bike theft prevention program that will educate riders about bike safety and securing bikes properly. Through the summer of 2015, bike advocates will be at BART stations throughout the system to provide riders with information.
Whether a bike is stolen indoors or on the street, and sold in an alley or online, cycling advocates and enthusiasts agree that serial numbers and registration is a good start to reducing theft. “It’s important to be able to prove you own your bike if it gets stolen,” Wagers said. “Anything that can be done is a step in the right direction.”
For more information on the BART bike theft program, visit https://bikeeastbay.org/BARTBikeTheft.
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