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The 2 big reasons why its easier than ever to sell a stolen bike

In our last blog we introduced the bike theft equation – risk vs reward. And we concluded that bike crime is high because the risks of being caught are low.

But that’s only half the story. Over the next two blogs we’ll explore the other half of the question; reward. Today we’re thinking about ease-of-sale, or liquidity. Then we’ll turn our attention to value, in other words how much stolen bikes are worth. 

Value and liquidity

In the case of bike crime, the rewards are getting higher and higher. Why? In theft, two key factors determine the potential reward of a crime: the value and liquidity of the item.

Let’s put that another way. Thieves have two questions when they are deciding if something is worth stealing:

  1. How easy is it to sell?
  2. How much can I sell this item for?

So, let’s deal with question 1 …

How easy is it to sell a stolen bike?

This factor is often underestimated when theft is analysed. If you only consider value when thinking about theft, the picture you get will be skewed. That’s because there are many high value objects which are very difficult to sell, and are therefore not targeted by most thieves. Likewise, low value objects which are easy to sell may still be attractive.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate this.

Bill the burglar is thinking about stealing an original Picasso. This is most certainly a valuable item. In fact, it’s worth over $100 million. “But where will I sell it?” thinks Bill the burglar. Good question Bill. You can’t just put it on ebay, can you. In fact, this is an item with very low liquidity. In other words, it’s very difficult for a thief to sell.

So Bill decides to steal a bike instead. “Is this Specialized Sirrus worth as much as that original Picasso?” thinks Bill. Not quite, Bill, although it is a nice bike (it’s also the most popular bike amongst bike thieves in the UK). But when Bill thinks about where he can sell it, he realises it has very high liquidity. There are lots of places he can sell all or part of this bike. Bill has made his mind up …

2 reasons it’s easy to sell a stolen bike

Despite the best efforts of bike registration organisations and law enforcement agencies, selling on a stolen bike is now easier than ever. In a candid interview, a former bike thief revealed that the longest it would take him to sell a bike was one day.

Reason 1 – the internet

Speed matters in terms of selling on stolen goods. The quicker you can sell, the less chance you have of getting caught. And online sales platforms are the ideal place for making a quick sale. Plus, you can easily sell the product to buyers in other cities and regions, making the chance of detection smaller still.

Some platforms, such as e-bay and Facebook, are better for tracking stolen bikes because they feature ‘back doors’ which allow law enforcement to monitor suspect items. But many don’t, and actively take down posts which suggest items on their platforms are stolen. The ideal market place for stolen bikes.

And while occasionally victims of bike crime can use these sites to track down thieves with the support of law enforcement (props to Portland again), in general these sites are making the problem more difficult to deal with.

Reason 2 – The chop shop

The other trick up the bike thief’s sleeve is disguise. Not themselves, but the bikes they steal. Enter the chop shop.

Depending on the city your in, chop shops might be found directly on the street, or off-street in garages and workshops, sometimes connected to 2nd hand bike shops. But the purpose is always the same. To create ‘new’ bikes using various parts from various other bikes. Whilst occasionally these are genuine attempts to ‘upcycle,’ chop shops area almost always used to disguise stolen goods.

And it’s a pretty effective method. As San Francisco’s specialist bike theft officer, Matthew Friedman recently explained, a lot can be done to a stolen bike to make it completely unrecognisable: “There’s new handlebars, there’s stickers on the frame, the frames are painted over, serial numbers are sometimes scratched off, there’s a different wheel set on there now.”

And even if serial numbers aren’t scratched off, illicit vendors can still find ways around the law. In the UK, pawn shops and 2nd hand stores are required to keep a record of the serial numbers of any bikes they sell. But if they ‘mistype’ the number in their books, there’s nothing much law enforcement can do about it.

 Why liquidity matters

 Liquidity plays a key role in bike crime. There are many different types of bike thief; some well organised and professional, others opportunistic. But, until the power to protect their own bikes is put in the hands of city cyclists, bike crime pays at all levels because selling stolen bikes is easy. And, as the value of bike on the street rapidly increases, it pays better and better. And it’s this that we’ll turn our attention to in our next blog.

What do you think?

How easy is it to sell stolen bikes? What could be done to make it easier to retrieve stolen bikes? Should online platforms be doing more to restrict the sale of stolen goods? Let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page here, or share this blog with your fellow bikers and start the debate.