As much of the Boston cycling community knows, I had 4 bikes stolen from a shed in my back yard in early August, two of which were mine: my much-loved (and upgraded) commuter and my mountain bike. Through hard-headedness, some work, and a bit of luck I managed to get them both back, and want to share advice for others trying to get their bikes back.
First and foremost: document everything for all the bikes you own! Record serial numbers, know what parts are on your bike, and if it’s not stock or was bought off craigslist or something get an estimate of replacement cost from your shop, which can serve as proof of ownership and proof of cost. I was lucky in that though I didn’t have any of the serial numbers for the stolen bikes when they were taken, I was able to acquire them all within 24 hours, from receipts and other records. The folks at Landry’s were also super helpful and printed out all the receipts they had in their system for my purchases from them (I had a saddlebag and lights stolen as well), provided me with service reports that could count as proof of ownership, and did a replacement estimate of my commuter (20yo frame with 2012 105 components and very nice wheels) for insurance. I had also registered the commuter with MIT, and they were able to send me a letter for the insurance company saying that I’d registered with them two years ago.
The next important thing is to call the police. Call the station, don’t call 911; unless the thief is still there and you need him to be caught, this isn’t an emergency, even though it may feel like the end of the world. Most insurance companies will require a police report, and if you have a case number you can get help from the police later (more on this to come).
Next, the thing I didn’t do that meant I didn’t get my commuter back for 3 weeks: poster your neighborhood, knock on doors, ask people if they know anything or saw anything. I don’t know who took the bikes, don’t know if they had been watching me for a while (I used the shed for storage for about 2 months, and washed my nice carbon race bike in the driveway more than once), but my mountain bike was sold to someone in a MacDonald’s parking lot on Soldier’s Field Road (not far from where I live) for $200, and my commuter was dumped a block and a half from my home (probably because they decided they couldn’t sell it because it had no pedals on it). If I’d gone around the neighborhood I probably would have spotted the bike, or at least gotten someone to tell me about it sooner.
The thing that I spent the next two days doing: let everyone know that your bikes were stolen. Especially if they’re unique. I’ve never seen a match for either of my stolen bikes around Boston, so I told everyone I knew who knows bikes that if they saw a red Lemond Tourmalet with a particular paint job in the city, it was almost certainly mine. I printed posters with color pictures and descriptions of what was on each bike and distributed them to nearly every bike shop in the area, both by email and in person. I pretty much tried to get everyone in the greater Boston cycling community to help search for my bikes. It turned out to not be necessary, but it made me feel better that there were shops where, if my bike came in, they wouldn’t let it leave without letting me know.
The thing I did almost immediately after making posters: set up alerts on Craigslist. I didn’t want to post that I was looking for stolen bikes, in case I scared the thief away, but I did want to see if they came up for sale. You can check various boxes to include nearby areas; I did that in both Boston and New York and the search areas were large enough that they overlapped! I included New York because I was told by multiple people that bikes stolen in Boston can end up being sold there. Of course, I was lucky in that I was looking for a Lemond, a Superfly, and an orange bike (which I didn’t own, but had rented from MITOC and was thus responsible for), which are very uncommon on Craigslist so I didn’t get more than a few emails a day even though I was looking over a very large search area.
The thing that I almost didn’t do: call the cops if you think you’ve found your bike and it’s in someone else’s possession. If you see someone riding it, call 911, if you find it locked up or on Craigslist or something, call the station. 36 hours after my bikes were stolen, a 2014 Trek Superfly 7 popped up on Craigslist for 700, cash only, with “clip pedals on the bike,” and using the stock catalogue photo. I was pretty much certain that it was mine and first called a friend who has a car and plays rugby. Luckily that friend was busy, and at my flatmate’s urging called the cops instead. They had me set up a meeting with the guy (with my not-suspicious email address) and went to get the bike themselves. The seller was in Chelsea, so my case officer in Boston called up the Chelsea PD who did the sting, and then, after matching the serial number, took my bike from the guy who was selling it. They were only able to take it back because I had the serial number, which was proof that I had owned the bike. I’ll say it again: if I hadn’t had the serial number as proof of ownership, they would have had to let the guy keep the bike even though we were all certain that it was my stolen bike.
I’ll finish with the thing that brought my commuter back to me 3 weeks after it was stolen: register your bikes as stolen on the various internet databases. Rejjee is a startup that has just partnered with the Boston PD and will register all sorts of things, not just bikes, and allows you to ask that a police officer come to your house at the same time you report things stolen. My bike was returned to me via bikeindex.org, after the people in whose driveway the bike was dumped, perfectly intact (with the hundred dollars of lights and everything else still on it), found the serial number on it and used that to find a phone number for me. Imagine my surprise and disbelief when I learned that it had been sitting a block and a half away all along!
The family is all back together! Why yes, I did buy a cross bike while being upset that I’d had two bikes stolen. You say I have too many bikes? Never!
I honestly can still hardly believe it that I’ve got both my bikes back. I’m incredibly lucky that I managed to get them both back, especially since they would have needed to be replaced immediately. The mountain bike is my race bike, and the collegiate mountain season started with last weekend’s opening race hosted by Northeastern, and the commuter is my transport workhorse, the only bike I own that I’m willing to lock up outside, the one with a rack that can carry enough groceries for more than a week, the one that I’ve had for years and have put a lot of work into maintaining and upgrading.
I guess that the final piece of advice is don’t despair, there’s always hope. I got my bikes back reasonably quickly (though I’d already started replacing the commuter), but I have a friend who once recovered a stolen bike 2 months after it was taken when he spotted a homeless guy riding it around town! You have plenty of support, both from cyclists and the police, and hopefully you’ll manage to find it eventually… or at least (and at worst, I guess) get your insurance to pay for replacement.