DIY Bike Detective: Tips For Tracking Down Your Stolen Bicycle In Chicago
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information provided by the Chicago Police Department in response to a public records request and related lawsuit.
Cristina Perez was a victim of bike theft four times while living in Chicago. First, the thefts were individual parts: a missing back wheel, a front wheel and then a seat. Eventually, after she bought a new bike for the Chicago Triathlon, the whole thing disappeared from her apartment building’s storage room.
Frustrated by these repeated mishaps, she wrote to Curious City, asking:
Why are so many bikes stolen in Chicago, and where do all these stolen bikes go?
It turns out that more than 4,200 bikes are reported stolen to the Chicago Police Department every year, on average. To find out why they’re taken and where they end up, we talked to several stolen bike recovery experts and bike theft victims — including Danielle Cushing, who actually managed to recover her bike after it was snagged from her back porch in Lincoln Park.
We discovered several factors that make bikes easy targets, particularly here in Chicago: an increase in biking means there’s a lot more opportunity to steal; a rise in the value of the average bike presents a potentially high reward; and the growth of loosely regulated online marketplaces has made it easier to sell stolen bikes directly to buyers. Finally, a lack of enforcement on behalf of Chicago police makes the crime a relatively low-risk proposition. According to Chicago Police Department data, 5 percent of reported cases of bike theft since 2009 were solved, but police filed charges in only half of those cases. So basically, it’s often on bike owners to do the detective work.
We learned some things that might help if you’re a bike theft victim who is ready to take matters into your own hands. Although there are no guarantees, hopefully these tips will help you be prepared in the event that you do come across your baby in the wild.
Collect your bike’s serial number, as well as any receipts or other records for your bike and any of its parts or accessories.
Pull together any photographs you have of your bike.
As soon as you discover your bike has gone missing, when you still feel that pit of devastation in your stomach, start to pull together everything that might help you identify your bike. Your bike’s serial number, which is its unique identification code, is arguably the most important piece of evidence.
But, even if you don’t have a record of this number, you should still gather any other information and documents. This includes any photographs of you and your bike in happier times, original receipts and a list of any unique features or characteristics.
Kevin Conway is an administrator of the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, a website created to help bike owners help each other track down their bikes. He says that one of the biggest hurdles to bike recovery is often proof of ownership. That starts with compiling evidence and filing reports.
This way, if you do happen to find your stolen bike, the police and these independent registry systems will be able to match up the bike you’ve found with the evidence you’ve provided, increasing your chances of recovery.
Danielle’s insider tip: “When I bought the bike, I did all the right things. I registered it with the city of Chicago. I put it on the bike registry. I did buy an expensive lock for it — [and] I registered the lock. I also had special wheel locks — I registered those. Everything was registered.”
Post a photo of your bike to social media, including Facebook groups like Find Stolen Bikes! (Chicago). Include details about when and where your bike was stolen, and any unique characteristics about your bike.
Ask your local bike shops to keep an eye out.
Get advice from other cyclists and theft victims.
In addition to filing a police report and posting her bike on the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, Danielle also spread the word about her bike theft on multiple online platforms.
She joined the private Facebook group Find Stolen Bikes! (Chicago), created by and for members of Chicago’s cycling community, where she was able to circulate images of her bike and seek advice from fellow cyclists.
Danielle also emailed 30 different bike shops with a photograph of her missing bike and all accompanying information, and asked them to keep an eye out. She says it helped that she had already registered her bike on platforms like Bike Index, which was partially created as a resource for bike shops so that mechanics can look up the serial numbers of bikes brought into their shops to ensure that they haven’t been reported stolen.
In Danielle’s case, spreading the word about her stolen bike led her to the place where she ultimately found it: Swap-O-Rama, a flea market at 42nd Street and Ashland.
Danielle’s insider tip: “I just got super techie about it [and] was like checking out all these Facebook groups for advice, and that's when I came across some people who said that I needed to go down and check out Swap-O-Rama.”
Look for your bike at local flea markets like Maxwell Street or Swap-O-Rama, where used goods are sold.
If you do find your bike, call 311 and request police assistance. Make sure to bring your police report and any other evidence with you.
Swap-O-Rama is one of many places that have earned a reputation among cyclists as a place where stolen bikes sometimes end up for sale. The giant flea market has locations in Chicago, Alsip and Melrose Park. It’s probably worth your time to check other markets throughout the Chicago region, such as Maxwell Street Market, as well as places like pawn shops that sell used goods.
Of course, the market for reselling used — and potentially stolen — bikes has risen with the proliferation of online outlets like Craigslist, OfferUp, LetGo, Facebook Marketplace and even Facebook groups made specifically for selling bikes.
Danielle spent the week after her bike theft searching the Internet for places to find her stolen bike. She perused these online markets like Craigslist and Facebook, but says she just had a feeling she would find her bike at the Chicago Swap-O-Rama.
“I was like, ‘This is where I need to go. This is where my bike is gonna be,’” she recalls.
When Danielle spotted her bike at the market, she called 311 to ask for police assistance. She says two officers showed up in about an hour. The evidence she had assembled when her bike was initially stolen came in handy.
Danielle’s insider tip: “The officer, when they met me at the Swap-O-Rama, they asked to see my receipt from when I bought the bike so I had that with me. I had my serial number on it. They asked to see my police report. I had a copy of that as well. … It made it all a much smoother process because I had done all of that.”
More about our questioner
Cristina Perez first moved to the city in 2005 to attend the University of Chicago. She grew to love it so much that she stayed in Chicago for about a decade.
She lives in Boston now, but she brought the bike she used to ride around her Logan Square neighborhood with her to the East Coast. She’s always enjoyed biking around the city, especially on the weekends. Her engagement pictures even included shots of her and her husband riding bikes together.
“That was definitely an identity we had in Chicago,” Cristina says.
After four different encounters with bike theft, she clearly remembers the feeling of showing up to the place where she left her bike to find that a piece of it — or the whole thing — was missing.
“You're expecting to rely on this mode of transportation and when you get to this location and your bike isn't there … it is like a sinking feeling of frustration,” she recalls.
Cristina says the initiatives cities like Chicago have been making to improve bike lanes and other infrastructure make her feel encouraged to bike despite the risk of theft, but she would like to see easier, more unified systems for reporting stolen bikes.
But she hasn’t ever considered quitting biking because of her thefts. She says loves it too much to quit.
“I enjoy it, and it’s oftentimes the best way to get around,” she says. “I never got discouraged to the point where I thought I would never bike again.”
Mackenzie Crosson is the multimedia intern for Curious City. You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.