Chasing My Stolen Bike

Stolen bikes are hot currency in the underground economy

| February 22, 2007

When Justin Jouvenal's bike was stolen -- the third bike he'd lost to stealthy San Francisco thieves in five years -- he didn't go straight to the police. He figured he'd have better luck recovering the bike on his own, so he asked around and learned of a few back-alley fencing operations where stolen bikes were likely to be found.

'Unwittingly, I pedaled right into San Francisco's underworld,' Jouvenal writes for the San FranciscoBay Guardian.

Jouvenal enlisted the help of Victor Veysey, 'the Yoda of San Francisco's bike world,' to aid his search. He also spoke with Sgt. Joe McCloskey, the San Francisco Police Department's resident expert on bike theft. Veysey and McCloskey told remarkably similar tales about the role of stolen bikes in the city's underground economy. 'Bikes are one of the four commodities of the street -- cash, drugs, sex, and bikes,' said Veysey. 'You can virtually exchange one for another.'

The National Bike Registry, which maintains the country's largest stolen-bike database, echoes Veysey's observation on its website: 'Within the drug trade, stolen bicycles are so common they can almost be used as currency.' And there are a lot of stolen bikes. As Jouvenal reports, 'Thieves steal nearly $50 million worth of bikes each year in the United States, far outstripping the take of bank robbers, according to the FBI.'

With stolen bikes nearly as fluid as cash in the underground economy, you'd think stopping bike theft would be a high priority for law enforcement. It's not. Sgt. McCloskey pointed out that, as far as police priorities go, 'Bike theft has gone to the bottom of the list.' Bikes are abundant on the underground market because bike thieves keep getting away with stealing them. Lock-breaking gadgets -- like a certain brand of foreign car jack -- make the dirty work easy; police inattention and lack of person-power make it lucrative.

A solution seems elusive. Jouvenal notes that San Francisco police and bicycle groups have approached city officials with proposals -- one officer suggested a city-wide bike registration system -- but with little effect. The director of San Francisco's Bicycle Coalition told Jouvenal that what'll be most effective in stopping bike theft are safer places to park bikes. 'The coalition is crafting legislation that would require all commercial buildings to allow cyclists to bring their bikes inside -- something many currently prohibit,' Jouvenal writes. 'The coalition would also like to see bike parking lots spring up around the city, with attendants to monitor them.'

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