Recover Your Bike

Getting your bike stolen totally sucks. There’s still hope, here’s what you need to do.

What to do when your bike is stolen:

  1. Report the theft to your local police department.
  2. Mark your bike as stolen on Bike Index and Project 529 Garage, where you should have already indexed your bike.
  3. If your bike was insured, such as through your homeowners, rental or vehicle insurance policy, contact your insurance company and file a claim.

Where to Report:

  • Police
    • Seattle Police Department
      • For bicycles worth $500 or less, use the online form.
      • For bicycles worth more than $500, call 206-625-5011 and report it to your local precinct office. Be sure to get a case number.
    • Bellevue Police Department
      • For bicycles worth $1,500 or less, use the online form.
      • For bicycles worth more than $1,500, call 425-577-5656.
    • King County Sheriffonline form
      • The King County Sheriff provides policing services for Beaux Arts, Burien, Carnation, Covington, Kenmore, Maple Valley, Muckleshoot, Newcastle, Sammamish, SeaTac, Shoreline, Skykomish & Woodinville.
    • Port of Seattle (SeaTac Airport)
      • Call 206-787-5401
    • Pierce County Sheriff & Tacoma Policeonline form
    • Snohomish County Sheriff & Everett Police online form
  • Bike Index
  • Project 529 Garage

Where your stolen bike might be:

A large percentage of bike thefts are likely related to a need for individuals to pay for a drug addiction.  To pay for their habit, these individuals are looking for a quick way to get a few hundred dollars.  From there, the stolen bike economy can be quite complex.

Here are some scenarios:

  • Low-level offender steals a bike and immediately sells the bike online via a pseudonym.
  • Low-level drug addict steals a bike and sells to a “middleman” who collects stolen bikes, changes parts to mask the bike’s identity, and then resells the bike online, to a pawn shop, or at a bike swap.
  • A middleman may use another third party to sell online, to a pawn shop, or at a bike swap. A middleman may also collect dozens or even hundreds of bikes in a garage, yard, or truck and waiting months or years before attempting to sell any of the bikes.
  • Higher-end thieves, who are less likely to be tied to the drug economy, may be more selective in the bikes they steal and more sophisticated in changing out components, stripping off bikes’ logos, repainting the bikes, and shipping/selling the bike to another city or region.
  • Pawn shops and used bike shops are legally required to hold any bike 30 days prior to selling it and also check all bikes against LeadsOnline, a proprietary reporting system that police departments use to track thefts. So, it’s somewhat unlikely you will find a stolen bike at a pawn shop or used bike shop, but it does happen.

Because stealing bikes may be paying for an individual’s drug addiction or may be part of an individual’s or group’s sophisticated economic activity, it’s especially important to be cautious in recovering your bike even if you know who has it.

Looking for your stolen bike

As soon as you find your bike stolen, report it as stolen to the police, Bike Index and Project 529.   In addition, it’s possible that the thief didn’t go to far yet, so take a couple hours to look around your neighborhood and to ask potential eyewitnesses.

CraigsIFTTTIf the bike is sold online, it’s likely that it won’t be posted for at least a week and possibly for several months.  Regardless, start monitoring online activity immediately.

  • Set-up an email alert in Craigslist for keywords matching the brand of your bike posted in any city within 500 miles of you.
  • Check the bike listings on OfferUpNow daily. Sorry, this is manual.
  • Create an IFTTT of eBay postings with the brand and style of your bike.
  • Check, new buy & resell phone apps, and local bike swaps for your bike.
  • Make sure all your friends and colleagues know what your bike looks like and ask that they be on the look out.
  • Like playing the Lottery, don’t expect to win but pursue it anyways for the hope and joy of the grand prize.

If you think you’ve found your bike online

If you think you’ve found your bike online, look for identifying clues that would help clearly identify the bike as yours.

Clear identification is important for two reasons. First, you don’t want to falsely accuse someone of stealing your bike — not cool.  Second, you may need to get a subpoena or warrant from the police department, and that will require “probably cause.”

This is why it’s essential to registered your bike on Bike Index and Project 529 with an up-to-date.  You need to already have a detailed description and plenty of photographs in order to help you make a clear match.

If your bike has already been sold online:

If the bike has already been sold online, you will likely need to get a subpoena from your local police department, where you already should have reported your bike as stolen and received a case number. The police officer on assigned to your case will then likely need to write an internal memo asking for the authority to issue an subpoena to the online website (e.g., Craigslist or OfferUpNow), that facilitated the transaction.  Online companies are rightfully protective of their users privacy rights and will not divulge users’ identities and contact information without the subpoena.

If your bike has not been sold online yet, you have a choice to make.  We recommend contacting the police officer assigned with your case that you think you’ve found your bike.  If they have time, they can be invaluable in ensuring that recovery goes smoothly with no violence inflicted upon you.

That said, often times police have bigger priorities and cannot address your situation in a timely manner prior to your bike being sold to someone.  If you cannot get the police involved quickly enough and think your bike is at high risk of being sold, you may choose to enlist a friend or other third party to set up a “buy” to check-out and ultimately recover the bike.

Gonzo Recovery

We highly recommend involving police in any recovery. However, we know from experience that police sometimes have higher priorities in the moment and that you may choose to take matters into your own hands. We recommend that:

  • you first consult someone who has done this before,
  • you recruit a friend to communicate with the thief and they go with at least one other person, and
  • the transaction is video recorded surreptitiously.

Because the thief may already know name and what you look like from your online bike registration photos, we recommend that you are not on-hand for the occasion.

Most importantly, do not turn the encounter into a gun show or a street brawl — your bike isn’t worth anyone’s life, even the thief’s.

Factors that increase police involvement

In Seattle, a bike theft will be low on any police officer’s priority list.  There are two circumstances that can alter that equation:

  1. If your stolen bike is related to a significant drug operation, the Seattle Police Department will assign its “Major Crimes Division” to the case. This is a separate division from any precinct. There are likely to work diligently to bring down the drug operation, so it may take several weeks to months to recover your bike — and you likely won’t even know about it.
  2. If the thief committed burglary by “breaking and entering” into a home or building, the police officer assigned to your case will definitely give it greater focus. Still, you may find the response not as strong as you’d prefer as even burglaries can be difficult to successfully investigate and prosecute.

If you recover your bike

Tell your story so that other people will learn your lessons and become more vigilant in registering and locking their own bikes. Email your story to us.

Thanking Good Samaritans

Sometimes people recover their bikes from someone who has already bought it from the thief.  This is such a happy/bummer moment, because you’ve found your bike but a good-faith buyer is losing their bike and the money they spent.

Often these unwitting buyers are just happy to get the stolen goods off their hands, in fear of possible criminal prosecution for possession of stolen property. While you’re under no obligation to pay the person for your own bike, we recommend that you find a way to thank them meaningfully.

Giving them cash for half of their purchase price is a good baseline. Often they had already bought the bike at below market rate and you’d otherwise not even have your bike back, so at least you’re splitting the difference.  If you can pay their full purchase price, that’s even better.

Another alternative is to crowdsource a donation back to the buyer. Many times you will have enlisted your friends, family and colleagues into finding your bike and they, like you, will be humbled by a Good Samaritan and want to thank them as well.  Crowdsource-funding websites like GoFundMe provide a way for your personal network and the bike community at large to thank these individuals. Be sure to put some of your money into the crowdsourced pot, too.

Finally, don’t forget about supporting Bike Index and Project 529, who are the ultimate Good Samaritans in the quest to find your stolen bike. They offer their services for free, but their operation still costs real money.