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Bike Thief Thwarted by Online Community of Cycling Vigilantes

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | July 23, 2014 1:28pm | Updated on July 24, 2014 8:46am
 This bike was stolen but later recovered.
This bike was stolen but later recovered.
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Heritage Bikes

CHICAGO — When bikes go missing, local online communities of cyclists spring into action — but Derek Lewis at Heritage Bikes in Lakeview said it's "very, very rare" that bikes are reunited with their owners.

When the shop got an "all too familiar" email from a recent customer that his handmade, $1,200 fixed-gear bike was swiped from his laundry room, Lewis said they did what they usually do — head straight to the reselling Facebook groups that he said Chicago bike mechanics secretly join and lurk to connect stolen gear with their owners.

"A lot of industry people are on these groups, but just to keep an eye out for friends," he said. "A lot of the stuff, we know is stolen, but if we don't know whose it is, we're not gonna risk blowing our cover" to buy back that bike, Lewis said.

 Heritage Bikes
Heritage Bikes
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"But the stars aligned for this one. We knew whose bike it was, and that's why we went after it, which we would do for any friends or customers of the shop."

Heritage Bikes staff contacted the seller and the Albany Park police district, which dispatched five officers to coordinate a sting under the guise of a bike sale, Lewis said.

"It was a tenuous two to three hours between when we contacted the sellers and then actually got a chance to look at the bike, because some of these kids will back out if they get spooked," he said. "This one, the stars aligned, and they waited, and so we were able to check out the bike with the police waiting, and the police nabbed them."

The bike shop posted photos of the listing and the thieves in handcuffs in a blog post on its website that celebrated the buyback as a rare victory.

"We have absolutely no sympathy for bike thieves, and will do everything in our power to make sure the worst thing possible happens to anyone stealing a bicycle in Chicago," the blog post stated.

Lewis said Heritage's bikes are easier to spot on a resale site because they make them all by hand, with recognizable features and distinctive parts.

The Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, an independent database where cyclists upload info about their stolen bikes and track known resale groups, said making your bike recognizable can help track it down if it goes missing.

The site links to a post on Mr. Bike advising cyclists to "install in your bike incontrovertible evidence of your ownership."

"Write your name, address, and phone number on a card, seal it in a plastic bag, and stick it inside the handlebars or seat post tube. That way, if you happen across someone on your stolen bike, you can likely prove your ownership on the spot."

Even with distinctive identifiers, Lewis said few bikes are safe from determined thieves. The fixed-gear bike nicknamed "Chief" that they recovered was stolen from "inside a laundry room, [where] it was locked to a big pipe."

"It doesn't get much safer than in your apartment, honestly," Lewis said. "I would tell anybody to keep your bike locked up in there — keep it in your apartment. Our customer did pretty much everything right, and [his bike] still got stolen. If you like your bike, keep it within eyesight."

"Chief" was missing its bell and basket when it was recovered, and the handlebars had been flipped. Lewis said stripped-down gears are one indication that a bike being resold is stolen.

Lewis said cyclists can help fight bike thefts by not patronizing suspicious sellers.

"Look out for a really, really low price," he said. "If it seems really too good to be true, then it is. Our bike started at $800, and this customer's bike was about $1,200 when he bought it, and they were selling it for $200, which is what the seat would have been worth on its own."

"The price is gonna be ridiculous, it's going to be stripped down, a little beat up, and they're gonna really, really want to get rid of it. Unfortunately, with all these groups, stolen bikes get sold all the time."

Last fall, a new bike theft phenomenon began plaguing the cycling scene: thieves detaching sign posts — called "sucker poles" — from the sidewalk and removing bikes with their locks intact.

From Nov. 1, 2011, to Nov. 1, 2012, 94 bikes that were locked to street signs were stolen, and 158 that were locked to a pole, pipe or fence were stolen. From 2010 to 2011, there were 82 bikes stolen from street signs and 125 from poles, signs or fences.

Those numbers are all the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry has to work with, since the Chicago Police Department does not keep specific data on bike thefts.

Still, Lewis said this rare victory is worth celebrating.

Reuniting a stolen bike with its owner "has never happened to us before," he said.

"It's just awesome that police are taking bike thieves seriously, because you have more and more people riding their bikes around for transportation every day, so it's starting to become a more serious crime," he said. "I'm glad to see there's some consequences."

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