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What to do before someone steals your bike (and how to get it back if they do)

Recently a report surfaced about the police finding a stash of stolen bikes. Police are hoping to reunite some of them with their owners.

But the thing about stolen bikes is that most people don't think about how to get their stolen bike back until it's too late to take the appropriate steps. The reality is most bikes will not find their way back home, but you can decrease the odds of theft, increase the odds of recovery or at least minimize the loss by following these steps.

What to do BEFORE your bike is stolen:

1) Record your serial number

This is the most important step. The bike's serial number is a unique identifier that is hard to spoof and hard to remove, and it is the strongest key to getting your bike back. Milwaukee Police Department Officer Robert Matheus noted that they recover hundreds of bikes a year, and very few, if any, have a police report with a serial number attached.

Serial numbers can be found in many places, but the most likely place they're located is at the bottom of the bottom bracket.

Officers can't return your bike to you if you don't have this kind of proof. Officer Matheus emphasized this point over and over during our brief discussion. Make sure you record your serial number and keep it in a safe place.

Serial numbers can be found in many places, but the most likely place they're located is at the bottom of the bottom bracket.
Serial numbers are etched or stamped into the bike frame. This one appears on the underside of the bottom bracket.

2) Take well-lit pictures of your bike

It's hard to rally the masses to keep an eye out for your bike when they don't know what it looks like. Take a couple of proper photos of your bike. This will help your friends, local shops and authorities understand what they are looking for.

"If we see something that looks familiar, we can stop people for probable cause and ask them about their bike," says Matheus. "Sometimes they'll say they found it, or they bought it from someone else. In either case, we can recover the bike."

But a photo is not enough for officers to return your bike, no matter how unique it is. This is why the serial number is so important.

"If there is no registration or serial number that matches the bike, it will be difficult to return the bike to its owner," Matheus said.

Make sure you update your photo file when you change components (such as a new color of bar tape, or a new saddle) or add stickers. The more unique your bike looks, the easier it will be to spot.

3) Register your bike

You can obtain a bike license from any public library and then activate it online for free. The license will help authorities reconnect you with your bike via the license number, your personal contact information and, you guessed it, the bicycle's serial number.

These licenses are unfortunately big and ugly, and aesthetically unworthy of your noble steed. I asked Matheus if you could just cut out the license number (the important part) and affix that to the underside of your bike.

"Unfortunately, most officers probably wouldn't know what they were looking at," Matheus said. "But you can still register your bike without putting the license on it. The database will have your contact information with the serial number, and that's the most important part." (See, he said it again!)

If you don't like the size or appearance of the bike license, Matheus recommends registering the bike without affixing the sticker, but I think cutting them down and affixing them to the underside of the down tube is a reasonable solution.

4) Get renter's insurance

"Recovering stolen bikes is a low priority for officers, especially in busier districts dealing with drugs and guns," Matheus said. If your bike is stolen, it is unlikely you'll get it back, so homeowner's and renter's insurance insurance provide a nice safety net.

You'll have to check with your agent, but plans will cover the cost of a new bike, minus your deductible. So, if you have a habit of spending less than $200 on a bike, this may not be of much help.

Many plans will cover the replacement cost of a comparable new bike, rather than the depreciated value of the bike (the garage sale price) and often they will cover it no matter where it was stolen whether inside or outside your apartment, down the street or across the country.

Once you've taken care of all the paperwork, you can do these two things daily to fight against bike theft.

1) Always lock your bike when you're in public places

Bikes are usually stolen for two reasons: they weren't locked up, or they weren't locked to something solid. It cannot be overstated that you must always lock up your bike whenever you are out in public.

Three different types of locks.
Get a good lock (no cable locks, and no galvanized chains). Three good locks are a hardened steel chain (left) U-lock (middle), and folding lock (right).

If you're going into a store for 2 seconds, lock your bike. If you're waiting at a checkpoint during the Riverwest 24, lock your bike. Even if you are having a drink at a Beer Garden and your bike is within eyesight, lock up your bike.

Here's a helpful rhyming mnemonic to remind you of when you should lock your bike:

Lock up
Away or
You'll be
Sorry one day

Secure, underground parking and shared apartment basements, even with friends, also count as public places.

2) Don't leave it outside very long, if you can help it

Leaving your bike outside can subject it to multiple abuses, human and natural.
Leaving your bike outside can subject it to multiple abuses, human and natural.

Outside is a great place to ride a bike, but outside is not a great place to store a bike. Bikes that are viewed as untouched or abandoned are prone to disappearing (either the whole bike or components, such as lights, seats, and wheels). Bring it inside whenever you can to avoid hungry eyes. And, as a bonus, you'll be protecting it from the elements, so it'll also require fewer tune-ups.

As for garages, keep the doors closed when you're not in them, and consider locking your bikes anyway.

What to do AFTER your bike is stolen:

Now that you've taken steps to recover your bike, here is what you can do when it does go missing:

1) File a police report

Most stations will take reports over the phone. Call (414) 933-4444 and provide a serial number, description of the bike and your license number. If you don't have all of this information, you should still report your bike stolen, but the more information you have, the better.

2) Post in the stolen bike listings

The Wisconsin Bike Fed helps maintain a listing of stolen bikes. Click the small link to the left to add your bike. Add your serial number, photos of the bike, and other relevant information.

3) Alert the shops

Send a flier to all the shops in the area, include the police report number, serial number and link to your stolen bike listing. If someone tries to sell a suspicious bike, the shops will be armed with all relevant information to secure the bike and take action.

4) Scour Craigslist

Pay attention to Craigslist posts and watch for matching entries. If you find a bike that matches your description, do not attempt to re-acquire the bike through trickery, as this could be highly dangerous. Either pay the asking price or work with police to retrieve your stolen goods.

It is unlikely the police will accompany you to retrieve your bike, unless you have enough corroborating information. "We can't go into someone's house without a warrant," says Matheus, "otherwise we would be violating people's rights."

With any luck, following these steps will help protect and recover your property, although most people aren't so lucky.


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