It only took a few seconds for Paul Custer’s bike to be stolen in broad daylight, with the thief using it as the getaway vehicle.
It was lunchtime in a Denver neighborhood. Custer and his wife were home when it happened. She heard a bang — the sound of the thief breaking into their detached garage by a side door — and saw someone enter the garage. She alerted her husband and he ran outside to intervene, but it was too late.
“He had come into our backyard through a gate and kicked our garage door in, grabbed my bike, opened the garage door and rode off,” Custer said. “What I should have done was got in my car and drove around and looked for him, because my wife had seen him, but I was too much in shock to know what to do.”
Custer had become a statistic in Denver’s growing bike theft problem this year. According to Denver Police statistics, 1,621 bikes were reported stolen through June 22, an 18% increase over the same period in 2019. In April and May alone, there were 749 reported thefts, 162 more than those months in 2019.
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Bikes can be easy to steal and very difficult to recover because they are mobile and easily hidden. Pawn shops in Colorado are required by law to report items they acquire and hold them for 30 days before they are put out for sale, in case they are reported stolen. But that only works for owners who register their bikes, and bikes are easy to sell through online marketplaces that don’t have those regulations.
“Sometimes it’s a crime of opportunity,” said Denver Police spokesman Jay Casillas. “They’re not secure, so people take them. There are instances where garage doors are left open and unattended. The bike is sitting right there, and it’s easy for someone to walk in and take it out.”
In fact, Custer recalls a day about a week before the theft of his bike when the garage door was left open. He suspects the thief noticed it that day and came back for it later when he thought he could get away with it.
Obviously, locking your bike is one deterrent, and the better the lock, the more difficult it is to defeat. Two high-end lock manufacturers, Kryptonite and OnGuard, offer anti-theft protection for your bike if you register the lock with the company after purchase.
“I think there’s just common agreement that bike thieves are opportunistic,” said Jack Todd, director of communications and policy for Bicycle Colorado. “Some of the really good ones can break a lock in less than a minute and be gone. There are things people can do to deter thieves and cover themselves in the event that a bike is stolen, including registering your bike and proving it’s yours so you have a case to get it back.
Another good idea is to register your ride with Bike Index, a free, non-profit national online database that has led to the recovery of more than 7,300 bikes valued at $10.7 million, according to co-founder Bryan Hance.
“We’re just a bunch of bike tech nerds who don’t like theft,” Hance said. “There’s about a half dozen of us core people, and we have a bunch of ambassadors and bike-culture people who help us spread the word and look for bikes.”
Hance recommends cyclists register their bikes with police departments as well, but those databases are for internal police use. If you register with Bike Index and your bike is stolen, you can report it and your bike is flagged. Bike Index sends out a tweet for users to be on the lookout for it. If a legitimate person finds your bike on Craigslist, Offer Up, Facebook Marketplace or at a swap meet, they can check with Bike Index via their phone to see if it’s been stolen. If it has, they can notify you that they’ve spotted it.
“Odds are, your bike is not going to be found by a police officer,” Hance said. “It is going to end up on Craigslist or Offer Up or at a swap meet. This is giving anybody the ability to pull out a phone and say, ‘Hey, I want to check on this bike to see if it’s stolen. Boom, there it is, I can click a button and contact the owner right now.”
Bike Index gets the word out in other ways.
“It puts that serial number and information of that bike into a system that is used in the U.S. by like 950 shops and police officers and schools and pawn shops and other organizations that regularly come into contact with bikes and have a need to say, ‘Hey, I think this bike is kind of sketchy, I want to check on it,’ ” Hance said.
The odds of recovery aren’t great. Out of 768 bikes stolen in the Denver area over the past 2½ years that were reported to Bike Index, 46 were recovered, which works out to 6%. The figure nationally for Bike Index runs about 9%.
“We’ve only recently started working in Colorado,” Hance said. “For other cities, the numbers are much higher. In Seattle last year, we recovered 171 bikes.”
If your bike is stolen, you can also post photos and a description of it on a Facebook page called Denver Stolen Bikes.
Custer has reinforced the garage door broken by the man who stole his bike, and in retrospect, he wishes he’d put a U-lock on his bike when it was in the garage. He advises bike owners to do that even if they aren’t locking the bike to something unmovable. If a U-lock had been attached to his bike through the wheel and the frame, the thief wouldn’t have been able to ride away on it.
Custer wasn’t without any bike, though. The man who stole his bike rode to the scene of the crime on a crummy old “beater,” which he left behind.
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