BikeIndex: How not to buy a stolen bike online

Last week, Seattle Bike Blog’s Stolen Bike Listings page went down. It showed no bike listings in the Seattle area, and unfortunately, this was clearly an error.

So Bryan Hance of BikeIndex, who runs the software and database that powers our listings, looked into the problem and discovered a depressing bug: So many stolen bikes have been submitted since we launched the page that the program was timing out every time it tried to load them all.

The problem is fixed and the listings are back. But 72 bikes have been listed using our new page since we launched it in November. Many more Seattle-area bikes have been listed directly to BikeIndex in that time. And certainly, many stolen bikes are never registered online.

When a bike is stolen, it’s very likely to end up for sale online. Craigslist is the clear leader in stolen bike listings. In fact, stolen good sales through Craigslist is so common that Seattle Police now offer precinct lobbies as safe places to exchange goods.

There are many legitimate people selling bikes on Craigslist, but identifying people selling stolen bikes is a bit of an art. That’s why BikeIndex has put together a handy guide to help you avoid dealing with stolen goods and to help track repeat offenders (since Craigslist won’t).

None of the rules in the graphic below mean absolutely that you’re dealing with a thief (especially the tip about bad poor grammar), but they should raise flags. If you find a clearly suspicious seller, email badsellers@bikeindex.com so they can help crowdsource a watch list. And remember, you can always turn and walk away from a deal if it does not seem right.

And Hance knows what he’s talking about. He ran StolenBicycleRegistry.com for years before teaming up with BikeIndex. He’s also on the Portland Police Bureau’s new Bicycle Theft Task Force, which could come up with some useful ideas Seattle Police can steal to fight theft here (pun unavoidable).

Another way to avoid these headaches is to buy from your local used bike shop. Obviously, shops charge a bit more than Craigslist sellers (they have rent and mechanics to pay!), but bikes have been vetted by professionals. Bikes usually come with a warranty and sometimes include some maintenance support. Shops are also stocked with various accessories (baskets, racks, etc), and they will often install them for free if you’re buying a bike from them. Over time, the extra bucks are probably worth it.

More details on the graphic (designed by Aubree Holliman of Ah-Ha Creative) in this BikeIndex blog post. You can download the printable PDF version here.

BikeIndex_How_To_Not_Buy_Stolen-650

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6 Responses to BikeIndex: How not to buy a stolen bike online

  1. Ellie says:

    Another one I’d add to this list: I look for ads from reputable sellers that have, for lack of a better word, some “heart”. Maybe a detail or two about how they used the bike over the years, why they loved it, how they built it, or what needs improvement. This is super noticeable with “weird” bikes, too. A family bike, cargo bike, electric bike or folding bike that is put up for sale with just a few specs and heartless descriptions is perhaps suspicious; upon further conversation you’d probably find the seller knows nothing about this unusual bike.

    I’d say this kind of storytelling should be a better factor to consider than grammar/writing quality (which, I’m guessing from your side note, you agree is a bit discriminatory to consider a factor.)

    The main exception is this story, which I’ve seen a hundred times: “I bought this bike for my wife but she barely used it because I don’t listen or consider her unique needs as a person so it’s yours now $500 OBO”. But who wants to work with that kind of person anyway. ;-)

  2. Allan says:

    I agree that one should watch all the tell tale signs for a shady dealer but there are a very large number of people who are perfectly legitimate selling bikes on Craigs List and on Ebay. Don’t just assume that bicycles are stolen just because they are second hand. First of all selling to a dealer is pointless, you might as well give them to the Salvation Army for the money that dealers will pay. By the way I have probably bought several dozen bikes over the years from the Salvation Army and St Vincents. Recently I bought one just because I wanted the racks on it. So I bought it for $50, took the front and rear racks and than sold it for $50 on Craigslist and it was too cheap so it sold fast.
    Mixing parts on a bike takes a great deal of skill, if you want it to work right. You can save a fortune by doing it. Building your own bikes is very cost effective, and you end up with a better bike, for less money. It will be suited exactly to your riding style. A few years ago I bought 20 Rocky Mountain Frames on Ebay from the Rocky Mountain Store in Colorado. I kept 4 and sold the rest, some built up and some as frames. I very much resent people implying that because I am a private seller, the bikes must be stolen.
    I feel that the vast majority of items for sale are legal and that is what makes it easy for the thief to blend in. Yes you should be suspicious when the seller wants to meet in an obscure location and won’t invite you to pick up at his house. There are really good signals that something is not right, but most of the time people are just getting rid of their excess bikes, old bikes, unused bikes and you can do a lot better than buying from a store that has marked up the bike 4 times before they put it on the floor. Also watch out for insane consignment mark ups. One dealer on California Ave in West Seattle was paying half the money back to the owner, that is if the bike sold. Others charge consignment fees like 30% and that after they charge you for inspecting your bike. They pay a lot less if you sell it to them outright. You should probably rather buy a new bike, than a second hand bike from a dealer. Go to a dealer for a new bike but forget buying second hand there.

    • Rob says:

      I sell quite a few bikes and never meet at my house. Reason being, I don’t want someone to see all my nice bikes while looking over the one I’m selling and come back for them later.

      • Allan says:

        I would be suspicious of you and probably not look at your bike. Why not just show the sale bike outside your house, or hide the good bikes if you have a spot? Buying a bike from a stranger in McDonalds parking lot does seem a good way to get a stolen bike. Maybe you could put the good ones in a corner and throw a tarp over them, leaving the ugly Mtb bikes in full view.

  3. Brian Bothomley says:

    This is an interesting article on one SF bike theft and recovery:
    http://www.wired.com/2015/04/stromer-theft-mode/

  4. Ben P says:

    Some of bike thievery is really mysterious to me. For example, last week, someone stole my friend’s seat and seat post. I don’t get the motive. What are you going to do with that? Just walk around for the rest of the day with a seat awkwardly? Maybe then try and put it on their own bike? Throw it out when they discover that not all seat tubes have the same diameter? If they knew saddles come off the post, would they have just taken the saddle, I mean, because who has a bike without a post unless someone just stole theirs.

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