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Evolving Bicycle Thieves: Always One Step Ahead?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The war between bicycle owners and their implacable predators, bicycle thieves, is an ongoing battle of wits. Every new protective measure taken by the owners inspires new techniques and strategies by thieves who have always regarded bikes as easy pickings because of their value, law enforcement’s less-than-enthusiastic view of bicycle theft, and the consequent ease with which a stolen bike can be turned into cash.

The ingenuity of bike thieves and their willingness to do whatever it takes is frustrating for those owners who have done all the right things to secure their bikes such as locking them to bike racks or fixed vertical supports like a tree or a street sign pole.

In London, the Huffington Post reported that thieves have come up with a clever trick to turn public bike racks into windfalls. They cut through the rack and then use gaffer tape to cover the damage. Sarah King, a Labour party councillor, alerted bike owners to the ruse by posting photos on Twitter:

Comments reacting to the tweet described the potential thieves as “industrious”, ”ingenious” and “sneaky.” Indeed. In cities, bike thieves have resorted to extreme means to get their booty and as the following video shot in New York City makes clear, as a bike owner, you can’t take anything for granted or for securely fixed – not even a tree.

More tree-cutting bike thieves can be seen HERE.

Cutting down a tree to steal a locked bike also features in another video shot in Philadelphia, which is apparently the U.S. capital of bike thievery. The thefts take up only the first 26 seconds and are part of a televised investigation into bike theft. The remainder of the video is used to show how GPS tracking helps to recover a stolen bicycle. (It also, incidentally, shows thieves where to find the tracking devices on a bike and how to discard them.)

What’s interesting about these scenes is how easy it was for the thieves to take a bike attached to a traffic pole. All you need is a tall ladder or wrists strong enough to ‘unscrew’ a badly secured stanchion. Worse, these roadside poles are often rigged by thieves to appear quite normal when they are anything but. In the U.S. city of Chicago, for example, dna.com reports these “sucker poles” are quite common.

To make a “sucker pole,” thieves remove the bolts that secure street sign poles to their bases, which enables them to easily lift them off the ground later and slide the locked bikes off. It usually takes no more than a few seconds to make off with the bicycle. And according to Howard Kaplan, founder of Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, the thieves don’t need to go through the trouble of rigging the poles because the more industrious ones now use power tools to unscrew the bolts holding down the poles.

In the city of Milwaukee, high-school students travel through the city looking for bikes attached to “sucker poles.” They look not only for complete bikes but also high-end parts such as Brooks saddles. And they have a Facebook marketplace, Chicago Bike Sellers, to quickly dispose of the stolen goods. Of course, not all the items for sale on the page were stolen. But if the bike ad is accompanied by a phrase such as “need this gone ASAP” or simply “need gone,” there is a good chance that a tree died in its acquisition.