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Got Your Bike Stolen? This is How! (A Guide to How Bike Thieves Do Their Dirty Work and Why) PLUS How to Prevent It!

Updated on June 9, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend's bike was stolen in a busy area in the middle of the day in front of a pharmacy with security guards walking around. And no one stopped it! No one even saw anything. We had just been grabbing some food and we came back to see only his tire and U-bar left on the bike rack. My bike, however, was left untouched, still attached to the rack by my Kryptonite combination mesh cable.

This made me so angry - more upset than my boyfriend was, actually - and led me to an in-depth research session online of how this stuff goes down. Now I'm constantly on the look-out for what bikes look stolen (like when a homeless man rides through the park with a trailer full of bikes missing front tires). Here's how bike thieves do their dirty work and even more interesting, why bikes are so commonly stolen.

Always lock your bike up by attaching the lock device to both the frame and the wheel of the bike. At the very least, the frame, as the wheel is removable.


First thing's first: how do bike thieves choose the bike they want to steal?

Well, sometimes they see a bike that is poorly locked up. Bikes that are only locked through one of the wheels are easy pickings - wheels are easily removable with tools and, once removed, leave the rest of your bike to be taken off. Don't be fooled by thinking no one has a use for a bike without a front tire - tires are easily replaceable and at the very least, the rest of the bike is good for parts. In fact, some thieves will steal bits and pieces off your bike - the saddle, the wheel, any sort of bag or luggage, especially if your bike has been parked in the same place for a long time, or if you park in the same place regularly.

Another way bike thieves choose their target is if you have a high-end bicycle. Expensive bikes are very good for reselling or trading for illegal drugs - one of the main reasons bikes are stolen (more on that later). Even if your bike is fully locked up, that doesn't make it safe. If you're in an area known for crime or even specifically bicycle theft, then that's not a good place to leave your bike unattended - even if there are security cameras. Stolen bicycles are rarely returned to their owners, and bike thieves are rarely brought to justice - even if their crime is caught on camera.

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So how do they do it? There actually is a general pattern that bike thieves follow to get away with your two-wheeled money saver.

  1. Sometimes they'll have a scout to go out and look out for the bike they want to steal. Once they've found one, they'll make a call to their partner in crime.
  2. They pull up their bike right next to yours and start fiddling with their lock. Unlocking it from their bike, leaning down to lock it - it makes it a lot less noticeable if they're fiddling with your lock if they're already leaning down doing something.
  3. Next, they start to break down your bike's defenses. If your bike is only locked up by the wheel, it won't matter how strong your lock is - your bike is gone as soon as they unscrew the bolts on your wheel. Now, if you have your bike locked up more securely (read: around the frame, with traditional locks), then there are still ways to defeat those.
  4. There is a tool called a Brennan, named for the San Francisco man who figured out that you can break open most bike locks - especially U-bar locks, with the plastic tubing of a Bic pen. It seemed it was one of those reports that warned the people of something thieves didn't know how to do until the report came out... But nonetheless, it is still in use today. You just jam the tubing into the hole and it gives up fast. (One way to try to keep this tool from being used is to aim your U-bar lock toward the ground in an awkward position, making it difficult to use much force and to use any other tools.)
  5. Another way of breaking through a lock is to use the good ol' garden shears or some other form of major-cutting tool. If your lock is one of the older single-chain locks (even with hard plastic around it), it's useless against some big scissors. If your chains are rusty in your lock, it's a good time to get them replaced.
  6. Sometimes all of that just won't do and the bike thief will spray your lock with a substance that freezes the keyhole area, making it brittle and weak. Then they smash the lock and your bike is theirs.
  7. And finally, a more brutal way to get your bike, if they really want it after all that, is to simply whack and smash at it with things like crow bars and hammers.

One of the first things bike thieves will do after your bike is in their grasp is get it repainted, making it very hard to tell if it's yours or not, and it will no longer match the description you might give in your theft report.

How To Unlock a Kryptonite Lock With a Bic Pen

So why do they do it? Well, many bike thieves are drug-users and need a way to get their fix. Bicycles are easily turned into money, and some drug dealers will accept bicycles alone as payment - especially high-end ones. They are also easily transportable, and less suspicious than a wad of cash.

As strange as it may sound, there are four forms of currency in the underground crime world: cash, drugs, sex, and bicycles.

There have been freights headed to Haiti full of stolen bicycles. Sometimes drug dealers from Mexico will hop over the border for some fancy rides in trade for drugs and sell them to high-paying citizens back in Mexico when they return.

For homeless people, a way to get around without walking is essential is some cases, and as you can see, bicycles are easy to get.

Homeless people are often drug-users who need a way to pay for their fix.


So how are you supposed to keep your bicycle safe? Well, the answer isn't simple or guaranteed. Bike lock designers have been in an endless race against bike thieves. It seems for every step forward made in bike security, there's always a flaw to be exploited.

However, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind when stowing your bike away in public:

  • Park your bike near other bikes. If there's a bike near yours that is easier to steal, it's likely yours will get left alone.
  • Make sure your lock is positioned to go through the frame. If you can get any additional parts fitting in your lock, like a wheel, then do so, but never leave your bike locked up solely through a wheel or other easily removable parts like the saddle or seat post.
  • If you are using a U-bar lock, do not get a bigger size than you need. Bike thieves will use the extra space for the tools they need to break it. Make sure your U-bar has a tight fit around your bike.
  • Sometimes it's hard to get a U-bar to reach the frame on standard bike racks. Experiment. Try positioning the front wheel over the front bar of the bike rack so that your frame is closer to the rails.
  • Sometimes college campuses and other places will have bike lockers to stow your bike inside more securely. Ask around to see if somewhere near you has some.
  • As mentioned earlier in this article, if you are using a U-bar lock, try to position the lock down toward the ground, making it difficult for bike thieves to use their tools.
  • Do not position your lock close to the ground. It makes it easier to smash and to use other theft tools.
  • Don't park your bike in the same place over and over. Bike thieves will keep an eye out for familiar bikes and if they know where it's going to be and have time to get to know your bike and its weaknesses, plus the times it's unlikely you'll return, they'll have a lot better chance of getting away with it.
  • Lock your bike even when it's at home or in your garage! A lot of bike thefts occur when you think it's safe in your backyard!

A wheel is easily removable, making your lock completely useless.


It's a lot of stuff to remember, and it's a seemingly endless battle of bike security measures and bike thievery, but it's worth taking as many steps as possible to keep your property safe. Bike thefts are on the rise with the encouragement of switching to cycling as your main form of transportation, and they aren't about to stop any time soon.

Here's hoping your bike won't turn out like my boyfriend's.

Leave a comment below if you have any stories of your bike being stolen or someone you know, or if you have any tips on keeping bikes safe!

(Note: A lot of the information presented in this article is attributed to research on [these] [websites].)

There are a lot of options when it comes to bike locks. Make sure you're getting the right one for you and your neighborhood!


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    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 5 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Awesome hub, great advice on how not to get your bicycle stolen. Thanks for sharing with us