The ultimate “free lunch” – why bike theft is a low risk crime

Does the risk of being caught stop theft? And does it work in the case of bike crime? At Deeper Lock we’re on a mission to fight bike crime using smart technology. And in this series of blog posts, we’re going in depth to understand how bike theft works. Today, we’re looking at risk.

Clearly, before we go any further we should point out that bike crime is complicated. It varies in different countries, in different seasons (50% of all bike thefts happen between May and August), at different times of the day, in different parts of the city. For example, one surprising statistic on bike theft in the UK is that over 50% of thefts happen around the home. And, of course, not all criminals are the same. Some are amateur, some professional, some are opportunistic, some calculating and methodical.

But, can we say in general that higher risk means lower theft?

The simple answer is yes. While the jury is out on the impact of harsher punishments, criminologists agree (to varying degrees) that crime rates go down when the chance of getting caught goes up. This was on our minds when we were designing Deeper Lock. We wanted to find innovative ways to increase the chances of a bike theft being detected.

 So, if risk is a key factor in crime prevention, what should we make of the statistic that just 5% of bike thefts in the UK are detected? You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work it out. The risks associated with bike crime are very low. From a thief’s point of view, this is a free lunch.

 Why risk matters

And risk of being caught is a key determiner in reducing crime. According to the National Institute of Justice in the US, an increase in the perception that you will be caught is enough to cut crimes like theft. Interestingly, they conclude that the “certainty of being caught” is a much more effective deterrent than harsh punishments. In other words, whatever penalties are in place, it is the likelihood of being caught that makes the major difference. When your fellow cyclists start complaining that punishments are too lenient, they are missing the point.

This is a big problem for bikers. With bike crime, the likelihood of thieves being caught is depressingly low (though an in-built alarm plus alerts sent to bike owners would certainly help to solve this.)


One factor that is putting the brakes on the fight against bike theft is underreporting. The official figures on bike theft make ugly reading. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. In the Netherlands, where over a third of the population use cycling as their main mode of transport, only a third of bike thefts are reported. In the UK, the figure is 1-in-5.

So why aren’t we reporting our stolen bikes? Again, no need for our friend from Baker Street here.

In 2015 academics from McGill University carried out an in-depth analysis into bike crime in Montreal. There was one main reason the bikers they interviewed gave for not reporting thefts: they “did not think it was worth the effort.”

Depressingly low recovery rates

And, according to the data, they’re right. In the same study, only 2.5% (yes, the decimal point is in the right place) of respondents had their bikes recovered after reporting them stolen. In Seattle, just 1% of stolen bikes in 2014 made it back to their owner. In Germany, just 10% of bike theft cases are solved. Had those bikes been fitted with on-board GPS, recovery rates would certainly have been higher. Yet policing also plays a key role here.

We know that bike theft is a low policing priority. Some local forces (props to Portland) have special divisions dedicated to tackling bike crime. But, sadly, they are still definitely in the minority. Most forces are like the San Francisco police department. Their bike-theft specialist Sergeant Joe McCloskey sums up the situation well: “It’s just a low priority, to be honest with you.”

Low risk, low reward?

So what’s the point? Put simply, the risks associated with bike crime are incredibly low. And, as criminologists know, when risks are low, crime levels go up, even if the rewards are modest. And, in the case of bike theft, the rewards for thieves are going up every year. With a bike going missing every 90 seconds in the UK, that means a lot of reward.

And it’s this rise that we’ll be looking at in our next post.

What do you think?

Why are the risks associated with bike crime so low? Is it lack of public awareness, low levels of bike registration, the fact it is a low policing priority, or something else? Deeper Lock uses anti-theft alerts, GPS and a 110dB alarm to raise the risks; what other ways could risk be increased for bike thieves?

Post your comments on our facebook page or share this blog with your fellow bikers and start the debate.