Grand Theft Ebike : How the justice system is ill-prepared to deal with ebike theft

September 28, 2019
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Here is something that has bothered me for a really long time. Why is it that when your ebike gets stolen it’s such an incredible pain in the ass dealing with the police to get it back. If your car gets stolen, even if it’s a $500 junker, it’s treated as a major crime, yet ebikes are often worth 10 to 20 times as much and it’s often treated as a joke by the authorities when your bike gets jacked. The burden of ownership proof ends up on the shoulders of the owner, and many police departments won’t even process a theft report unless you can prove you owned the bike and what the serial number was. This article is about how to keep your bike from getting stolen, how to prepare for dealing with the police in case your bike gets stolen and how to deal with the police when your bike is stolen (it happens).

This is what I used for decades, a rusty old chain and lock, but it’s the dumbest setup to use

How bikes shaped who I am

When I was young I was obsessed with bikes. My earliest memory was when I was about 3 or 4 and my parents got me a bigger tricycle. I remember running back to my tiny tricycle and hugging it and saying I never wanted to give it up. This was an early example of what would later become a lifelong obsession with bikes. I still remember the day I first rode without training wheels on my banana seat bicycle and the thrill of that day. My sister ran behind me holding up the seat of my bike and then she let go and I thought she was still holding on and then, suddenly, I looked back and realized I was actually doing it, I was flying. That feeling and that thrill never abated even through 3 bad accidents that ended up putting me in the hospital over 45 years on bicycles.

This was the bike that changed my life and gave me calves that looked like cow udders

I lived about 10 miles from my school and the bus took over an hour and there were some pretty intimidating bullies on the bus. When I got to be about 11 or 12 I started riding my oldest sisters steel Schwinn Varsity 10 speed to work every day. It took less time than riding the bus, it was incredibly scenic and it gave me a sense of freedom. I would bicycle commute to work once I turned 14 at the Rose Inn as a groundskeeper and often I would commute 20 miles each way into Ithaca just to sit on the commons and watch people. I loved that bike, took it everywhere for about 10 years and it never got stolen even though all I had to lock it with was a cheap $5 chain lock with a padlock. I was devastated when that bike finally got stolen.

These bad boys will remove any normal padlock or cut a chain in about 5 seconds

My sister’s Schwinn was taken from a garage of an apt when I was living in Ithaca. The bike was not locked up, but the overhead door of the garage was closed (but not locked). Someone went into the garage and took my bike, but that was not the last I saw it. About one year later I saw a young kid who used to shoplift toys at a store I worked at walking down the street with my bicycle. I went to the police station to tell them what had happened. They said I needed some kind of proof that the bike was mine (I had none). When I asked what kind of proof I needed, they said the original receipt for the sale with the serial number on it. When I asked them for any other way to record ownership he relented that a picture of the serial number would work as well. I begged the officer to come with me to just talk to the guy who stole my bike, but they wouldn’t do it unless I had proof of ownership and filled out a stolen bike report.

If it had been a car that was stolen I doubt they would have been so cavalier about the whole thing, and most of my cars I pay a tiny fraction of what I pay for ebikes, so there is some serious irony here. I have to admit that emotionally I was totally distraught, not feeling comfortable confronting the bike thief and feeling completely unsupported by the people who were supposed to protect me was devastating. As the Dali Lama says, attachment is the root to all suffering. This kid who had my bike I’m sure didn’t care about it at all, but for me, it was thousands of good miles, some heinous accidents and 10 years of freedom.

Under the bottom bracket is the most common place for the serial #, this one is so much nicer than what you usually see

You must document your ownership

Whenever you buy an ebike, even a used ebike, make sure to get a receipt for the bike with the serial number written on it. Take a picture of the serial number (usually under the bottom bracket) and then scan them into the cloud (Dropbox or Gdrive) and keep them on your computer so you don’t have to keep track of them. You will need both of these things to get the police to help you find it. When I buy an ebike I also print out the original invoice and then write the serial number on the sheet and store it in a folder with my car titles.

If the serial # is not under the BB here are other common locations

Make sure you’re protected before calamity strikes

If you have a homeowner’s policy make sure the full retail value of your ebike is covered in the policy. Although about 1/2 of all stolen bikes are recovered, only about 5% make them back to their owners. As soon as your ebike is stolen, make sure that you fill out a police report and then scan Craigslist and Facebook marketplace on the ebikes for sale areas. Tell your local bike & ebike shops that your bike got stolen and to be on the lookout for someone coming in looking for an ebike charger. Tell them if someone does come in to try to get their contact information and/or name by filling out a ‘service request’ so that you can track them down with the police and get your bike back.

A cheapo cordless angle grinder, a cutoff wheel, and a wet towel can get through most locks in about a minute, for a good lock it might take ~2 minutes

Get a decent lock that can’t be destroyed without serious power tools

Don’t ever use the small cheap cable locks unless you want your bike to get stolen. I highly recommend a U lock that locks on both sides and has a cable you can run through the wheels. I have had good luck with the Kryptonite Kryptolok which runs about $55 street price. A bike thief will see a bike locked with one of those and will just pass it on by knowing he has to cut through both sides of the lock with their angle grinder instead of just one side. If the lock costs less than $50 then it’s probably not worth buying.

There are new bike locks on the market that are designed to make a bunch of noise if they are tampered with. I have no experience with these kinds of locks so I can’t say how well they work, but you can get them for about $35 on Amazon here. If you know of any other lock that you’ve had luck with, please post about it in the comments.

Locks like this can easily be destroyed without power tools, don’t waste your money

Get it off the streets

The best way to keep your bike from getting stolen is to bring it inside your home or place of work and keep it there. The chances of having your bike getting stolen inside your office or home are pretty slim compared to having it outside. If you have to have it locked outside, try to keep it somewhere where you can keep an eye on it.

I’ve been riding with a battery in a backpack for 5 years now and still counting

Take your battery with you

When I take my ebike into town I take an empty backpack and then I remove the battery and carry it with me in the backpack. That immediately gets rid of the most valuable part of the ebike and makes it far less desirable. Who is going to steal an ebike if they know they need to invest $500-1000 just to make it work or be sale-able. Any ebike they steal they know they will have to purchase a charger in order to sell it, which is already a pretty big detraction. When riding in the woods I take my battery and ride with it in the backpack to keep weight off the bike, but with commutes of more than about 45 minutes the extra weight of the battery on your back will cause fatigue so I find with commuters it’s better to keep the battery mounted on the bike.

The Skunk Lock is my favorite crowdfunded lock which releases noxious chemicals when it’s hit with an angle grinder, but at $119 revenge doesn’t come cheap

It seems like bike locks are incredibly popular on crowdfunding sites. There have been many people claiming to have the latest and greatest lock design that is theft-proof. My experience is that no lock is theft-proof if you have a motivated bike thief. You only need to make your ebike look less appealing to steal than all the other bikes out there.

There is a right way and a wrong way to lock up a bike, this is the ‘right way’

Lock your ebike the right way

The best way to lock your ebike is to remove the front wheel and put the U lock through the front wheel, the back wheel and the chainstay. If you don’t want to remove the wheels (or can’t because your ebike has a front hub motor) then just put the cable through the frame and around the front wheel and then back to the lock. Securing your seat is often more trouble than it’s worth. Put on a crappy seat with duct-tape on it and make sure you don’t use a quick-release on the seat tube.

You should also lock your bike even if it’s inside. I learned my lesson and when I have ebikes in a shed I often lock them up. You can take two 6″ Timberlock screw with a spider head and drill it into the shed studs the long way and get a thick steel mounting plate with two holes to clamp down on the loop of the cable that comes with the U lock. Then you just lock the U lock to the cable which is bolted to the shed or garage. The Timberloks have a really strange head that I’ve only seen when I buy Timberlok screws and they are super tough. The nice thing about the Timberloks is you can remove them and they only leave a tiny hole that your landlord (probably) won’t care about.

The Timber Lok Spider Drive is Obscure enough that no one is going to have a bit for it, perfect for porches, sheds, and garages where there is nothing convenient to lock it to

Make your ebike look like it’s really not worth stealing

This is my favorite part. Any brand new nice looking bike can be turned into garbage with a $1 can of flat black spray paint and a roll of duct tape. There are also lots of videos on youtube about how to make ‘fake rust’ with spray paint. Make sure to apply the duct tape liberally to the seat (even if it does not have holes in it). On some of my bikes, I have rusted out parts I intentionally mount on the bike and on one bike I wrote “FUCK YOU BIKE THIEF”. Ironically that bike was stolen at Burning Man and then returned later by the thief who then asked if we had another bike we could have as a reward for returning my bike (true story). On all my kiteboarding equipment I paint NO RESALE VALUE in big bright letters (as a theft deterrent since I often leave it on the beach unsupervised). I also suggest you put your name, email address and phone number and REWARD IF FOUND. If you put that on your ebike with a paint pen, not only does it totally devalue your property, you never know, maybe it will make it’s way back to you if it gets stolen.

That carbon fiber ebike with all those carbon parts is a total bike thief magnet. You can fix the attractiveness of carbon fiber (and preserve the weight savings) with flat black spray paint. I know it seems like heresy, but remember that a good bike thief can make $10,000 a week or more in places like NYC. Don’t make their jobs easy.

No self-respecting bike thief is going to steal a bike that looks like this, make your ebike look like this

Program an anti-theft code on your display

A lot of ebikes allow you to program a code you have to put in to ride the bike. This might deter ebike theft, but probably not so much. It will make life a lot more difficult for the bike thief, but it will also make it much more annoying for you if you have to put in a code every time you turn on your ebike. Keep in mind most of the time if you buy a new display then you will lose the anti-theft code. With Bafang displays I know the DPC-14 and DPC-18 both allow for 4 digit passwords.

Looks legit and about $3.50 each on Amazon

Get a fake vinyl GPS tracking sticker

There is a glutton of GPS trackers on the market right now, but most of them require a SIM card or a subscription-based service. I haven’t tested any of them, and I’m too cheap to sign up. All over my house on every door I have ADT Security stickers. I’m way too cheap to pay for someone to sit at a desk and watch my house, but the 16 cameras I’ve setup store many months of footage and the vinyl stickers were less than $2 each on ebay. If you do a search on ebay for “bike track gps sticker” there is a bunch of stickers that are $2-3 shipped. Using a $2 sticker is a lot smarter than paying $25-30 a month for a GPS tracking service.

The Luna Fixed is one of a number of new ‘stealth’ ebikes on the market

Get an ebike that looks like a normal bicycle

There are more and more ebikes on the market that look just like normal bicycles. They have hidden batteries in the downtube and extremely discrete motors built into the bottom bracket. To the casual observer, they won’t look like ebikes and for bike thieves, they might just pass it over and get something that looks fancier or more expensive. The bike that comes to mind is the Luna Fixed (available here for $1650) but there are many others out there.

I have bought and sold tens of thousands of dollars of stuff on CL and had 2 people try to buy stuff with counterfeit bills

Don’t buy stolen ebikes

You want good karma, don’t buy ebikes that you know are stolen. If something seems fishy like the price is way too low, or they ‘lost’ the charger then just say thanks, but no thanks. If you buy a stolen ebike knowing that it’s stolen then you are committing a crime. If you buy a stolen ebike and someone sees their ebike in your possession (and can prove it because they read this article) then the best-case scenario is that you just lose the bike, worse case you get criminally charged. Just don’t be that guy. If a deal seems too good to be true, you’re getting scammed.

Stealing bikes is low risk and high reward and ebikes doubly so. $50 million worth of bikes are stolen every year. Most people don’t have the proper documentation to file a police report, so only 5% of recovered bikes ever make it back to their owner. Don’t be one of the 95% that never gets to see their stolen bike again, or better yet don’t get your bike stolen in the first place. If you do what is listed in this article it’s no guarantee that your bike won’t get stolen, but it will probably help.

Helping you stay on the saddle is what I’m all about.

Ride On.

Karl Gesslein is a degenerate hooligan of the highest caliber living in upstate NY. His passion for e-bikes and all things sustainable causes him to be obsessed with climate change and finding solutions that will keep humanity from becoming extinct from our own hubris. His personal blogs include electricbike-blog.com, awaken-spirit.org & chestnutparadise.com.


12 Comments

  1. Sorry, but $5000-$10,000 ebikes are not common. As for the whole thing about police reaction on ebike theft vs car theft is an apples to oranges comparison, even $500 cars have bill-of-sale and registration paperwork with names and serial numbers on them, so proof of ownership is simple. I am sure that if you go to the police and say “I just bought a used car, didn’t have time to register it and left the bill of sale inside and it was stolen” the police will blow you off because you cant prove you own it, and dont want to waste time on someone who isnt taking precautions

  2. In the UK, we have a police sponsored scheme where you can record the frame number of your cycle. However, I don’t think there is any facility for buyers of second hand bikes to check the ownership. If you want to protect yourself from being prosecuted for handling stolen goods, demand photo ID from the seller and take a copy of it.

    Also if you have a five or ten thousand dollar e-bike, it doesn’t matter how well your lock it up, as there is a massive market for stolen bike parts, there will be a lot of parts that are secured only by a single screw. So you probably want to do all you described, plus insure your bike, and ensure you meet the requirements of your insurer.

  3. My ebike was stolen 2 weeks ago

  4. I understand you are annoyed that the cops didn’t seem to take your bike theft seriously, but i don’t think you’re being fair to them.

    Cars have titles, vin numbers, and registration. If your car was stolen and you saw it later, driven by someone else, the cops would expect you to have the title to prove it’s yours before they accuse the other driver of theft.

    They’re only asking for an equivalent thing when they ask for a receipt and serial number for your bike. They want proof that your bike is actually yours, just as they’d expect proof that a supposedly stolen car was actually yours.

    Because, otherwise, they’re approaching (for all they know innocent) people and forcing them to give property to someone else who claims, with no proof, that they’re the rightful owner. Sure, I’d like a sports car. I think I’ll tell the cops that guy’s ‘vette is mine. Think they’ll give it to me? See my point? Of course the cops will ask for proof of ownership, as they should.

    If your ebike is so expensive (I have a $3000 one, so I know they are.) you should keep documentation that it’s yours just as you’d keep a copy of your car title. In fact, you might do one better and insure your ebike against theft and liability, just like you would a car. (There are at least a couple specialty insurance companies that provide this service.)

  5. As a person who last had his bike stolen 30 years ago before I knew how to properly secure it, but know plenty of friends who had theirs stolen even when they they thought they were safe (almost all from their garages) but I have had seats, lights, and god knows what pilfered, because it didn’t take 10 minutes to basically field strip my bike and carry it with me. Therefore, I scoff at how the police department is “ill equipped” to deal with the rise of popularity of expensive e-bikes and the waves of theft that obviously follows. Since they are too expensive to just ignore, it’s some sort of crisis and the public needs to do something more about it. You know… because before eBike owners are just leaving them leaning against street signs with signs that say “steal me” on them, right?
    Let’s just say it out loud: it has been a long standing open secret that the police does literally nothing to recover stolen bikes. The only crime in SF more ignored may be B&E of your car. if your bike is stolen, whether it’s a beater or a $2k commuter (unwise) you’ll be lucky if they file the paperwork and your serial number gets into a missing property database. The only story of anyone I know recovering their stolen bike was because he spent the following weekends cruising the Oakland flea market until he found his stolen bike for sale. He checked the S/N and it matched so he got off and road off. The seller yelled after him, hey! You didn’t pay me! Thief!!!” And he flashed the police report and his middle finger and away he went. Love that story.
    Anyway, now that eBike theft is becoming a serious problem and they are really expensive, it’s a “crisis” because the cops actually have to do some police work. Boo flipping hoo. Of course, same rules still stand about personal responsibility- lock that eBike up and make sure those expensive batteries are not easy pickings, but the reality is the cops (who are admittedly overstretched having to be everything now) have to deal with it and if that means getting more resources to do it… well… I’d say: FINALLY!

  6. the cop sell recovered bikes it is not in their best interest to find the owner!

  7. I’m a cop. I’ve recovered over $50k worth of bikes in my best year but that was one of my few duties. Now I’m a night shift patrolmen. There are four of us to police a city of 100k after 3am.

    The bottom line is that if you don’t know you’re serial number then you’re out of luck. We take stolen bike reports all day long and the vast majority of people don’t know and report their serial numbers. So John Doe reports their black and green Kona Process with Fox 36 and Hayes brakes stolen with that color and those components as the only identifying descriptors. The problem is two fold from here.

    1) thieves are almost immediately spray painting bikes and swapping components making it impossible for me to identify as yours without a serial number

    2) your comparison of stolen bikes to stolen vehicles is not great. Vehicles are registered to the department of licensing/motor vehicles. It is very simple for an officer to lookup who the legal owner is. This doesn’t exist for bikes. Sites like 529 Garage are trying to empower owners to document their ownership. Knowing your serial number is king.

    When it comes to stolen vehicles I can run the license plate as it drives down the road or sits parked without seizing the person driving the vehicle. Or I can check the VIN of a parked vehicle without having to manipulate the vehicle. To check the serial number of a bike I have to manipulate it; I have to flip it upside down and check the bottom bracket. No way for me to check the serial number of a bike being ridden without seizing the rider.

    I can’t physically detain every single person riding a Kona Process with a fox 36 fork and Hayes brakes if those are stock components and it looks exactly like every other version of that model coming out of a Kona bike shop. Imagine stopping every green Honda Civic because a green one was stolen somewhere. Kona probably sells thousands upon thousands of those which doesn’t equate to reasonable suspicion that seeing one person on one makes it stolen. Imagine if I pulled you over on your Kona Process; seizing you from your ability to continue as you are because someone else’s Kona Process was stolen. Seizing that person would be a violation of their fourth amendment rights because possessing a stock model bike isn’t reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.

    Now if the stolen bike is unique in some way then it is a different story, so make your bike unique. Back to point 1. Criminals are altering your stolen bikes, making them difficult for police to identify without a serial number. You report a blue Schwinn with green forks and they paint it Black with blue forks. If by legal circumstance I find myself in a position to lawfully check the serial number and you didnt report one this bike isn’t getting back to you.

    Additionally well funded police departments can subscribe to a website which all pawn shops are required to submit their activities in. This database can be searched and offline searches can be programmed so that if a bike or any item with your serial number is pawned the officer will be notified. Now, this database is only as good as the data inputted and I’ve repeatedly found pawn shops to enter an “i” as an “l” when it comes to serial numbers to throw is off the scent.

    You want to be more frustrated? Look at the coals Seattle Police are being raked over right now for their biait bike sting. The courts don’t care about property crime, unfortunately and the thieves we do catch are out the next day to do it again with their charges dismissed if they promise to take a class on the dangers of drugs.

  8. put some shit on the saddle.no one will touch the bike……a dog might pee against it.great deterrent.those track suited hoodies wont want turd hands.

  9. Insurance -GEICO- hasnt paid in 10 months now

  10. Hey ..get a crap bike ..paint parts of it flat black including your good electronics..
    .
    Take the battery with you when you park it buy a 5 dollar bike lock and no bike thief will give it a second look

  11. The bike “environment” is ill equipped for dealing with theft. If a car or truck is stolen, it has a mandatory highly visible ID… The license plate. It also has difficult to remove/change VIN plates all OVER the place. I suspect were bikes to have similar IDs there would be far fewer thefts… And MUCH more responsible riders. Because of this later suspicion, I seriously doubt we’ll see bike IDs.

  12. There’s only one thing to do about your original sister’s bike that was stolen….STEAL IT BACK….the only way of keeping a bike from being stolen is keeping it in your house if you cannot pick it up and drink it in your house don’t buy it…. Now where are you travel to is the other problem if you have to lock it up at work outside that’s a big problem if you cannot bring it inside work!!! No Lock that weighs less then you will work…

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