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Inside the mind of a bike thief — learn how to protect your bike

How does a professional bike thief operate, and how can you protect your bike from being stolen?

Originally published July 30, 2015

Why do people steal bikes, and how can you stop them? The Metropolitan Police has released this interview with a professional bike thief that provides some useful insights into how thieves operate and how you can deter them.

The force point out that there's a lot of variation in the way thieves operate. Some target sheds, others communal hallways and some bikes which are locked in the street. Some are more ‘professional’ and cautious than others, but what is clear is the lengths some offenders will go to, to steal a bike.

Why steal bikes as opposed to other types of crimes?

I’ve always been comfortable with bikes, I can strip them down and put them back together really easily. You can take them places where you can’t take a car and stay of the beaten track so they’re easy to move around. I like the thrill of stealing them and I can make a lot of money. One week I made £7,500.

What did you do with all that money?

Blew it, bookies, weed, drunk for England, meals out.

Cash (CC BY-NC 2.0 eltpics:Flickr)

Cash (CC BY-NC 2.0 eltpics:Flickr)

On any given day, what would make you think ‘I need to go out and steal’?

I did it all the time, it’s what I did for a job. I’d go out every night for hours and hours. I’d go out during the day and do the spotting but all the stealing was done at night. Often I had orders, I knew loads of people, I was known as the ‘bike man’ and people would introduce me to someone who wanted a bike. The rest of it went on Gumtree.

How much planning did you do before you went out?

I’d often get the orders over the weekend and then go out during the week. I’d know where I wanted to hit and I’d do an area for a few days, Barnes for example, I caned it, but then you know the police will get themselves organised so I’d move on before that happened and go somewhere else.

Bike Thief I Hate You (CC licensed image by SR Crawford:Flickr)

Bike Thief I Hate You (CC licensed image by SR Crawford:Flickr)​

Was it ever to demand? Were you asked to steal specific bikes?

I’d only steal decent stuff that I could get a return on. I’d rather go home empty handed than take rubbish. I sold a lot to foreign people, Poles for example, they all wanted bikes and I sold a lot to them.

Was it ever just taking an opportunity?

Not usually, I’d like to be careful. Go out in the dark, stay out of sight, I’d go nowhere that was covered by CCTV. I’d know pretty much where all the cameras were. I got caught by CCTV once at a school, but that was stupid and I didn’t make the mistake again.

How would you select an area/street?

I did mainly sheds. I’d have a bike out of the garden if people were stupid enough to leave it there, but mainly I was looking for sheds and I’d garden hop from one to the other. If there was a rear alleyway that would be useful because it kept me out of sight but it was also good to move the bikes that way.

Master Lock Street Cuffs.jpg

What would make something an attractive target? What type of bike are you looking for?

The better the bike the better the return, so if I could get a really expensive model I’d take it, but I’d take anything that I could sell on and I was stealing lots.

What would put you off? Is there anything else that would make you change your plans?

Seeing the police at the start of the night, if it looked like they were around the area as opposed to driving through. Also seeing magpies. If I saw one I’d carry on thieving, if I saw two I’d go home. Funny little superstition.

It would take a lot otherwise, I could break into any shed pretty much if I had a screwdriver and sometimes bolt cutters. The only thing that would stop me would be an alarm on the shed. If an alarm went off I’d jump the fence and run and get as many streets away as possible before the police turned up.

Dogs were no problem, I’m not frightened of dogs, they were more frightened of me. I’d get down on the ground roll around and play and they were fine. I had one that actually whined when I stopped playing and jumped back over the fence.

Would you always operate/steal in the same way?

Sheds were my thing and I could almost always get in. I’d undo the screws, so the best thing you could do would be to use those screws that you can only tighten, you can’t undo. They’re really frustrating.

I could pretty much cut any bolt off and I’d look for quality. A quality padlock meant something interesting inside, but if you’re going to have a padlock you should make it a big thick one. I’ve taken the hinges off quite a lot but the other thing was, if all else failed, I’d lie on my back and force the roof off with my feet. They’re only nailed on, then I’d put it back on afterwards.

Related reading: Buyer's guide — The best bike locks

How do you do it?

Often then I’d lay them up, hide them somewhere nearby and go back the following morning. Sometimes I’d hide them in the same garden. If I had a few to collect I might go back with a mate and a car, otherwise I’d ride them back or maybe get a train.

If the bike had a good lock on it that I couldn’t get off there and then I’d use the angle grinder when I got home. Wire locks aren’t worth bothering with, there’s not a wire lock I can’t crop. D locks are the thing you should have but most people don’t lock bikes in the shed. Why do people spend hundreds, even thousands on a bike and then buy a lock from Poundland? There are some locks that are so poor you can open them with your bare hands. I took one that was padlocked to a lamppost just by wrenching the bike away. The lock just fell off.

What would you do if you were disturbed, for example by police or an owner?

Hide, get myself into a hiding place, a bush or something and lie as still as I could. I could hear my own heart beating but usually I wasn’t found.

Protector 13mm chain

How would you get to the area you were working in?

Cycle, walk, bus, train, any way really.

How quickly would you want to get rid of the property after the theft? Did you ever take it home?

My rule was never spend the day with a bike. The stuff for Gumtree would be at my house for a while but if it was an order I’d ring the people in the morning and tell them to get round the house, collect the bike and pay. I’d been out all night, the least they could do was come to me to collect.

How would you get rid of it?

It was all done at the house. I’d never take the bikes anywhere to do the deal.

Do you know what happened to them after you got rid of them?

They were to use, they’re being ridden around now. But people are stupid they never record the details of the bike anywhere. I’ve been stopped on stolen bikes and there’s no record of them anywhere so you go on your way.

A lot of bikes go on to Gumtree particularly in the summer, that’s when most are shifted. You know the police are looking at these sites but there’s so much stuff on there they can’t keep up with it.

abus-granit-xplus-lock-1

What’s your best advice to anyone who owns a bike?

Invest in a decent lock, get a D lock or anything that costs. The more expensive the lock the better it is going to be.

Make it hard. There’s a triangle of metal just behind the saddle column, and that’s made like it is for the purpose of locking your bike securely, but people don’t know that. Put your lock through there and you should be able to get it through your back wheel.

Stolen bike wheel.JPG

Take your quick release front wheel off and lock it to the back one. People sometimes put the lock through the front wheel. That’s fine, I’ll have the rest of the bike and get myself another front wheel. You should never lock it below the handlebars. An Allen Key will get the handlebar column off.

Related reading: road.cc's Bike Locking Bible

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48 comments

Avatar
Calc | 2 years ago
1 like

Interesting comment he made about dogs being no deterrent.   I had a friend with a truly huge and terrifying Rhodesian Ridgeback that would attack any legitimate guest, the postman, people walking past the house etc...  Had to be chained up when anyone came to visit, lest they be ripped to pieces.  It would snarl and pull at the chain the whole time you were over.  Would pray the chain was not going to snap.  Yet, his house was robbed with the Ridgeback inside.  The dog would spend the whole night on the doormat inside the front door, however, the front door was the point of entry and the thief or thieves must have carried everything out of the house whilst stepping over the dog.  Dogs seem to like lowlifes.  Dog was in the dog house after that, as it was not cheap to feed the blighter...

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jh2727 replied to Calc | 2 years ago
0 likes

I have a big dog who makes a lot of noise when people come to visit - and some guests find it quite terrifying, but all he wants to do lick them and cuddle them. When people are fearful of him, that can make him fearful, he'll start acting aggressive - because if they are having a fight or flight response, he wants to make sure it is the latter. When people come upto him and they are confident and trusting that he won't harm them, he's as good as gold and putty in their hands.

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Xenophon2 | 2 years ago
7 likes

I had my bike stolen last May.  From inside the bike storage room in the 4-apartment building where I live (centre of Brussels).  They broke in at night and cleaned it out.  We have them on cam but it was the usual: 2 guys with hoodies, caps, outside cam showed them putting the bikes in the proverbial white van, fake license plates.  My canyon grail was attached with an Abus D-lock to a fixed point.  They took the lock too, simply opened it in 3 seconds, reataached it to the frame and wheeled my bike out.  Police came and when I queried about the lock, one of them pulled up an alibaba page offering keys that would unlock ANY Abus lock of a certain model.  Luckily, my home insurance paid up.  Neighbor lost a Pinarello Dogma, other neighbor a Brompton e-bike.  Our errors:  camera system but no alarm on the bike room + the entire area saw relatively expensive bikes entering and leaving from the building every day.  We invested in extra security but nevertheless, my new bike (7k Euro) stays in the apartment overnight, I ride it daily for my commute, it stays in my -heavily secured- office building and I never, ever leave it outside and out of my sight, not for a single second.  My conclusion is:  forget locks and stuff:  don't leave the bike outside and be sure to take full theft insurance.  If for some reason it needs to stay outside:  get a cheap bike.

Avatar
Sriracha replied to Xenophon2 | 2 years ago
3 likes

Commiserations. Indeed, a wise man once said:

Xenophon2 wrote:

"A dedicated thief (not talking about a junkie or school kid) will get your bike if he wants it and it's worth his while. Keep the bike in the house or in your office if at all possible."

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Xenophon2 replied to Sriracha | 2 years ago
2 likes

Indeed.  Little did I imagine when I wrote that, that they'd burglarise my residence to get at it.  Apparently over here, 42% of bike thefts happen from within residential buildings (usually bike storage rooms).  Now, being burglarised was a shock but financially the loss was very limited, insurance repaid about 85% of the original purchase price in my case and I did ride it daily for 2.5 years (and was planning a replacement on or about its 3rd anniversary anyway).  Only one who grumbles now is my better half b/c she doesn't like seeing the new titanium toy standing next to the washer in the apartment.  Even though security's been beefed up I simply can't get myself to leave it in that room again.  Same for my neighbors.

Avatar
Sriracha | 2 years ago
1 like
Quote:

What would put you off? Is there anything else that would make you change your plans?

Seeing the police at the start of the night, if it looked like they were around the area as opposed to driving through.
...
It would take a lot otherwise

So, visible policing works, who'da thunkit?

Moreover, it takes a lot of alternative measures to make up for an absence of visible policing - not only does visible policing work, but it is cost effective compared to alternatives. Who'da who'da thunkit?

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Sriracha | 3 years ago
1 like

"...but usually I wasn’t found."
So sometimes he was found. How come he's still at large. Even if there was not enough evidence to convict, it would be pretty obvious what his game was, so keep tabs on him until there is enough evidence.

PS - the article claims to have been "updated on 17 Aug 2020". So not simply republished. Would be good to highlight what exactly has been updated. Clearly the photo showing the out of circulation £5 is not updated.

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OldRidgeback | 4 years ago
0 likes

My good competition bikes reside in the cellar, along with my son's. My old hack is in the garden.

I've said this before, but it's easy to build a scruffy looking MTB or roadbike using an old (but still very serviceable) steel frame for commuting. Letting the frame get scratched and have surface rust plus some tatty bits of tape in places makes it far, far less appealing to a thief. A decent set of wheels and a decent mech can be obscured by general road crud and oil. Just make sure the bits that need lubricating are lubricated. I lock my old hack up at the station and there are always shiny new bikes that will get the attention of a thief. It may be an old banger but it's really nice to ride.

Yes I have quick release wheels so the front one comes off and is d-locked through the rear of the frame and rear wheel to a nice and sturdy steel post.

I've had bikes nicked, but not for a while.

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hawkinspeter | 4 years ago
0 likes

How about getting a cheap cable lock and spend the money saved on a couple of baseball bats?

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Xenophon2 replied to hawkinspeter | 4 years ago
0 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:

How about getting a cheap cable lock and spend the money saved on a couple of baseball bats?

 

Two jokers who did exactly that in the US are cooling their heels in jail as I type this.  A dedicated thief (not talking about a junkie or school kid) will get your bike if he wants it and it's worth his while.  Keep the bike in the house or in your office if at all possible.  Not sure about his stance on dogs either, I'd like to invite him to try climbing over the fence, then rolling in the grass and tickling their tummy with a couple of canines that my brother has running around.  

Avatar
luke.lon | 4 years ago
1 like
Quote:

D locks are the thing you should have...

Sure, but I know from experience that it takes less than 30 seconds to cut through a 15mm shackle with a portable axle grinder  2

Avatar
matthewn5 replied to luke.lon | 2 years ago
0 likes

A newish hybrid bike parked opposite my house was stolen on Wednesday night. I heard the tinny sound of a cheap angle grinder start up and looked out of the window and the theives and the bike were gone in 20 seconds. The two lads looked like teenagers. They cut through a decent D lock cut in two places and through a cable holding the front wheel in that time.

I reported it to the police who sounded supremely uninterested. I even gave them a detailed description of the thief - who wasn't even wearing a hoodie. I doubt they even bothered to write it down.

There is absolutely no point locking up a decent bike anywhere now theives have angle grinders.

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ktache replied to matthewn5 | 2 years ago
0 likes

Without a decent lock the insurance will not pay out.

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hawkinspeter replied to matthewn5 | 2 years ago
1 like

What we need is for the police to set up and use some 'honeypot' bikes. Install suitable GPS tracking hardware into a new-looking bike and lock it up somewhere that it's likely to be stolen. Then, the police wait for it to be stolen and for it to stop moving; swoop in (hopefully on bikes) and make some easy arrests.

For extra evidence gathering, put a hidden camera watching the bike and maybe some smart water/paint/dna on the bike too so that it can be proved that someone touched it.

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Captain Badger replied to hawkinspeter | 2 years ago
2 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:

What we need is for the police to set up and use some 'honeypot' bikes.

....

 

oh yes, please!

Avatar
hawkinspeter replied to Captain Badger | 2 years ago
1 like
Captain Badger wrote:

oh yes, please!

I watched a documentary about a new hive design that has no exits. It was unbelievable

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mdavidford replied to Captain Badger | 2 years ago
2 likes

Useful on a cold day - swarm.

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Jimmy on wheels | 4 years ago
1 like

My question would be:

Would you prefer your balls removed with your own bolt cutters and smashed on the pavement or straight up angle grinded off ya little s***?

I'm really surprised they didn't ask the s*** about the consequences for his victems.

Avatar
smalltalk80 | 5 years ago
3 likes

I managed to slow a guy down stealing a Giant MTB (outside a pub on the high street in broad daylight!) such that loads of people took photos / videos of the incident. Advice from police afterwards (when giving statement) was not to directly confront them as they may be high or armed with sharp implements.  However they did say that if I had injured the guy that I would be covered by the bit of the law which states that I was trying to prevent a crime.

FYI, the lock was one of those cheap £10-20 rubber coated cable locks with the twisted steel strands inside.  Easy to cut through strand-by-strand after you've got through the rubber.  I always use double d-lock if i'm parked in the open.

Avatar
hamiltonian42 | 5 years ago
3 likes

anyone ever accosted a thief? confronted bone the other night angle grinding a friends lock. brazenly continued until robustly challenged for id, we chased him for a bit but the angle grinder meant we couldn't get close enough to catch him. got his bag and phone, and a poor photo, but the cops indicated little chance of forensics. anyone had more experience of a citizens arrest, or use of 'reasonable force' in detention of an armed individual? not the first time our club has lost bikes, and not the first time ive stopped a theft, but would like to reduce the criminal population....

Avatar
Darren Franks replied to hamiltonian42 | 5 years ago
1 like
hamiltonian42 wrote:

anyone ever accosted a thief?

I had my phone snatched this week by a thief on a bike. I caught him but lost my bottle when he started shrieking about shanking me. He escaped with my phone but I recovered the bike he was riding, which is now with the police. The frame number wasn't listed on the register, as so few ever are. There's a longer version of the story on my blog.

Avatar
cycle.london replied to hamiltonian42 | 4 years ago
3 likes
hamiltonian42 wrote:

anyone ever accosted a thief?

I did once.  Or rather, a would-be thief.    Was going into one of these little 'bazaar' shops, and there were two members of the shopkeeper's family standing outside having a ciggie.  I asked them if they'd mind watching my bike, as I would only be in for a minute or so.   They agreed.

A couple of minutes later, one of them poked their head in and said, 'Erm...'

I went outside and there's a bloke stinking of booze, standing holding my bike.  He said that he'd had an identical bike, that his was stolen, and asked where I got mine.  The implication was obvious.

'It's my bike, mate..' I reply.

He keeps insisting, that his was stolen, and eventually, he swings a leg over the bike and gets on.   At this point, I put my hand around the luggage rack at the back, and lift the back wheel off of the ground as matey starts to pedal.  With my other hand, I take out my phone and dial 999. 

When the police responded, I explained the situation and the bloke hopped off and walked away, cursing at me.  'Is it your bike?' the copper asked.  'Of course it's my bike' I said.  'Would I have called you otherwise?'

Avatar
NOC40 | 8 years ago
5 likes

or we could try to force gumtree, ebay etc to have frame numbers compulsory on adverts. if it doesn't match when you buy it you'll know it's stolen. we do this for cars, why not bikes, cameras etc?

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Beefy replied to NOC40 | 8 years ago
0 likes
NOC40 wrote:

or we could try to force gumtree, ebay etc to have frame numbers compulsory on adverts. if it doesn't match when you buy it you'll know it's stolen. we do this for cars, why not bikes, cameras etc?

The robbing bastard pointed out that most people don't record the frame number. If it was put in the advert I suspect it would carry no real value as the number wouldnt be matched as stolen. May be compulsory rear number platesis the answer?

Joke!!!

Avatar
Mungecrundle | 8 years ago
1 like

2 pronged approach:

1. Lock it up properly.
2. Devalue the components by means of permanent marking, datatagging, smart water or other security marking.

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Leeroy_Silk | 8 years ago
2 likes

I've read another interview with a bike thief who specifically targeted high end carbon bikes. The guy had no issues hack sawing through a frame then selling the groupset only. He'd often make more for the groupset than the complete bike.
You can have the worlds best locks but they're only as strong as the weakest part, if that just so happens to be the frame it still might be stolen.

Avatar
dunnoh | 8 years ago
2 likes

Its really quite simple. The reason bikes are stolen is because people are buying them. People buy these cheap bikes and dodgy sites pretending they are above board and they have a bargain. If people had to buy these bikes with a receipt, a photo of the seller and proof that the serial numbers were OK then the market wouldn't exist

Avatar
WPM | 8 years ago
2 likes

I thought that locking using the seat tube was a no no as it allows leverage - i.e. using the frame to break the lock like this : https://youtu.be/NDOk3cnUKdY?t=40s

Instead, I believe it's better to lock it through the rear wheel, inside the chainstay, seatstay, seat tube triangle. You can't force the lock (trying destroys the wheel), but you also can't get the wheel out of the triangle due to the lock.

http://www.sheldonbrown.com/lock-strategy.html

Avatar
KiwiMike | 8 years ago
1 like

A few years back I picked up a Colnago from the local recycling centre for £10. No front wheel or saddle, and it had been really well-used. Checked the serial numbers on the various databases, not marked as nicked.

Stripped it completely, cleaned up all the bits, and made about £300 on eBay.

If I were criminally-minded, I'd nick top-end bikes and flog the bits. Very few if any serial numbers, top dollar paid by eBayers. Why sell a £5k bike for maybe £1k to some bloke down the pub, when you could get two or three times that for all the bits? And no chance the serial number will incriminate you.

Of course crims know all this. My point being, the toughest lock in the world won't mean squat if they are willing to hacksaw or just snap your frame to get the bike away with all the fruit attached. And most of that fruit is an allen key away too. Always amazes me to see D-A bikes locked to buggery around the frame/wheels, but there's £1k worth of carbon stem/bars/Di2 shifters held down by nowt but a visible 5mm bolt.

Avatar
Bill H | 8 years ago
2 likes

On the rare occasions I have to leave my bike out of sight I try to lock it next to a fancier bike. Always use two locks too, d lock and a chain with its own padlock.

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