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How to Find Your Stolen Bike on Craigslist

Everyone's favorite place to hunt for apartments can also be used to catch bike-stealing crooks. Here's one man's story.

The Bike Nation series is brought to you in partnership with CLIF Bar.

In 2004, the FBI estimated that more than a quarter of a million bikes are stolen in the United States each year. Chances are that if you ride a bike—and you really should if you can—it will be taken from you at some point in your life. While having your bike stolen can suck, all hope is not lost. One of the simplest and cheapest ways to try to track it down is through Craigslist. We talked to Christian Brown, a freelance film and television designer in Los Angeles who in April found his heisted bike on Craigslist, to find out how he did it.

GOOD: How does this story begin?

Christian Brown: My bike was locked up underneath my apartment. I'd been locking my bike up to this big support column underneath my unit, which was big enough that the lock fit around it really snugly. I used to watch those videos of dudes proving how easy it is to steal bikes, and I knew the one thing basically every lock is susceptible to is using a car jack inside the loop of the lock to force it wide open, and I figured, “Hey! Big column! Nobody can jack it open, and the lock's a Kryptonite, so I'm sure it's totally impregnable.” (Stupid.) Plus, the bike itself wasn't really anything special—a 21-speed Cannondale that I'd bought new a year earlier. It was basically the cheapest new bike I could find, so I couldn't really imagine someone going to a lot of effort to steal it.

Anyway, I came home from work one Tuesday and noticed that the big blue recycling bin was out front, in a parking space, sort of visually blocking the column my bike was locked to. I immediately thought, "Well, fuck me, someone stole my bike today.” And I was right. All that was left was the lock, cut open really cleanly, so I guess even fancy-ass Kryptonite locks can get cut by someone dedicated enough. As near as I can tell, they moved the recycling bin to make it easier to hide how long they were taking to cut it open.

This was actually my first bike since I was a kid. I hadn't even been on one in like 15 years when I bought it. That's why I bought it new; I didn't know shit about shit and wanted to make sure it was reliable. I hadn’t had a bike stolen before, but my serious bike-riding friends said it was inevitable

GOOD: What made you decide to start looking on Craigslist for your bike?

Brown: It was actually a similar thing that happened to a coworker—but with a laptop stolen off the back of a parked motorcycle. He immediately hopped on Craigslist, which I wouldn't have done, and he found the laptop. Alas, it was sold before he could figure out what to do. So after my bike disappeared, I started just poking around on Craigslist. Basically searching for "21-speed" and "Cannondale," figuring those were the two things I'd advertise if I were trying to sell a bike I stole.

GOOD: How long did it take you to find your stolen bike on the site?

Brown: It was stolen on Tuesday, and on Sunday I was walking back from the corner store and saw it on my phone on Craigslist. (I pretty much tried to only search for it on my phone, while walking around, so I wouldn't just refresh Craigslist on my computer over and over.) I wasn't sure it was mine at first; there were a few photos of it, and most were close-ups of the chain and tires and whatnot showing it was in good shape. Oddly, three of the four photos showed it with a kickstand, which my bike definitely didn't have. But the fourth was taken in a different location, and it was extremely recognizable as mine. It was the same color, and the posting mentioned it was the same model (a Quick Six). Also I'd added three things to it after I bought it: a rear rack, a water bottle holder, and a little under-the-seat Velcro bag. The rack and water bottle were on it, and while the bag was missing, so was the rear reflector I'd had to remove to install it. It’s hard to imagine the odds of the same color, model and add-ons all showing up within a week of my bike being stolen.

GOOD: How did it feel to see your bike on Craigslist?

Brown: I basically flipped my shit. My then-fiancée (now wife!) was out at a surprise bridal shower, so I was alone with the cats in my apartment frantically Googling "found stolen bike craigslist help." Most of the results were useless, as they were about figuring out if the bike you bought on Craigslist was stolen. I was excited, but also, after my coworker's experience with their laptop, extremely worried that it would get sold before I could get it.

GOOD: Did you consider just going to get it yourself, or did you immediately call the cops?

Brown: I one hundred thousand percent considered going on my own to steal the bike from the Craigslist seller. I had fantasies about shouting over my shoulder "I KNOW YOU STOLE THIS, YOU MOTHERF**KER!” as I sped off. But I called the cops because I figured in L.A. they probably have a lot of experience with stolen bikes. They didn't say it happened often, but they made it sound like having found it on Craigslist was a good sign and that their “bike detectives” (!!!) would be excited. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so I had to wait a day to meet with them.

GOOD: How did you and the cops catch the people who had your bike?

Brown: The cops didn't actually let me get within sight of the bike seller. They sounded really worried that I'd do something "unwise,” which wasn’t that unreasonable of them given the revenge dreams I was having. I’d already started texting the guy selling my bike to set up a time and place to meet (my backup plan if the cops didn't want to get involved was to just buy it back, because my fiancée had made it abundantly clear that if I died a week before our wedding in a failed bike-counter-theft operation, she would turn my Facebook memorial page into a really embarrassing monument to how stupid I was), so I'd already had a time picked out when I met with the detective on Monday. At that point, I'd gotten the serial number from the store that sold me the bike, so the cops were really excited—I guess an easy bust is appealing. The police had me take a phone call from the bike detective when he was in position and then text the bike seller and ask him to bring the bike outside our arranged meeting place so I could see it. That’s when, according to the detective, they would "nab him." I didn't hear from anyone for like two hours, and then the police called and said they had my bike, the serial number checked out, and I should come get it.

GOOD: Was the guy charged? Technically the seller could have gotten the bike from a third party in an innocent exchange, right?

Brown: The guy was not charged, since he said he had bought the bike at a swap meet. He described the guys that sold it to him as being there every weekend and selling a suspicious number of cheap bikes. He said he bought my bike for a hundred bucks, took it home, cleaned and tuned it, and was trying to resell on Craigslist for $250. He was a bike flipper, I guess. The cops made it sound like this was legal, but they were hoping on busting the guys who sold it to him. From what I can tell, the guys at the swap meet were part of an actual bike-theft ring, stealing bikes professionally and selling them at swap meets.

GOOD: How is the case going now that you've gotten your bike back?

Brown: Last I heard, the cops are pursuing the bike theft ring. If it goes far enough they might need me in a court case, but they also said a lot of times bike thieves just confess. We’ll see!

GOOD: What's the lesson to take away from all this?

Brown: The real lesson here is that I shouldn't lock my bike up outside my apartment for any real length of time. And I shouldn’t assume that nice bike locks are a substitute for just keeping a bike inside, behind closed doors.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user sylvar

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