Recovering Stolen Bikes with Social Media and Cycle Vigilantism

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Bicycles at the Laney Flea Market in Oakland, Calif. (Isabel Angell)

If someone steals your bike, it can feel pretty hopeless, and enraging. That’s because it is. But, angry cyclists are finding a community online that is willing to go to great lengths to help a fellow cyclist. Social media is creating the digital equivalent of the back of the milk carton but for bikes, with a few elaborate success stories. 

Last year, 585 bikes were reported stolen in San Francisco – though it is believed far more thefts went unreported. In Oakland, the police department doesn’t even keep track – they just don’t have the resources. And the bikes that are recovered usually don’t make it back to their owners, because the police don’t have enough information.  

So Jenny Oh Hatfield took matters into her own hands. She's what you would call an avid cycler. She’s into mountain biking, indoor cycling, and road racing. She also happens to know a lot about social media from her work as an interactive producer at KQED. So when someone stole her brand-new mountain bike from her Oakland condo complex last July, first she got upset. Then she sprang into action.    

“So I just put together a description with a photo and disseminated it far and wide on the web,” she recalls. “I emailed cycling groups, posted it on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Flickr, you name it, just blanketed the web and informed as many people as I could.”  

A week later, Jillian Betterly – who didn’t know Hatfield but had seen her posts – recognized the bike at Oakland’s Laney Flea Market. Betterly went up to the guy selling it, showed him Hatfield’s post on her phone, and just took the bike back. A bit of gentle vigilantism with a happy ending. 

This idea of using social media to track down a bike isn't just in the Bay Area or Portland. There's Twitter profiles across the country dedicated to helping people get their rides back, from Minneapolis to New York City. They're popular because even when police do recover a bike, they often can't find the owner. 

Sergeant Darrell Kelley is in charge of Oakland Police Department’s Vehicle Enforcement Unit, which oversees recovered bicycles. He says a lot more people would get their bikes back if they filled out a police report with the proper information.  

“Just like you keep the vehicle registration for your car, you know the license plate number and all that, it should be the same for your bike,” Sergeant Kelley says. “You should know the serial number for your bike, you should get a bike license, and you have all the information in case your bike gets stolen.”  

Hatfield’s stolen bike was found in a flea market. This is pretty common – flea markets are a fairly unregulated and anonymous place to sell.    

Jun Takeda goes to flea markets most weekends, including one the one across from Laney College in Oakland. He looks for lots of things – old cameras, vintage audio equipment – and he’s gotten especially good at spotting bikes.    

“If I know it's like a super rare bike or like a nice frame and it's at a flea market it's obviously stolen,” Takeda explains.

Tadeka works in the cycling industry and owns eight bikes. When he sees a bike he knows has been stolen, he’ll buy it, take it home, and go online to try to get it back to its owner. Last year, he found a Davis Phinney model Serotta at the Ashby flea market in Berkeley. It’s a really rare bike that isn’t made anymore. “I was just walking through and I saw it out of the corner of my eye,” he remembers. “I knew exactly what it was when I saw it.”    

Dealers I called say that bike could be worth several thousand dollars. Takeda bought it for $120. When he got home, he searched for a post about the bike on Craigslist and immediately found it.Two hours later, owner and bike were reunited. The guy told Takeda it had been gone for about six months.      

Over the past year, Takeda’s found and returned three bikes. He doesn’t ask to be reimbursed – though sometimes grateful owners happily do so. Takeda figures it’s good karma. Speaking of which, as we walk around, Takeda asks me if I’ve heard the story of Justin LaBo. It’s almost a legend now, he told me.    

I hadn’t talked to Justin yet. But I had heard of his story, from Jenny Oh Hatfield.    

“[Justin Labo] had had a De Rosa track bike, a very rare vintage beautiful Italian track bike stolen six years ago,” she tells me. “He never lost hope that he would find it. Then one day, someone sent him a link to a Craigslist post in Portland. He looked at the picture and noticed a very small and very distinct scratch on one of the decals. It was his bike."    

Hatfield – who’s friends with LaBo – helped me track him down.    

“So I, at that point, I’m pretty confident, I’m 100 percent confident that it's my bike,” he says. “So I go crazy on twitter and every cycling forum that I’m a member of, just saying hey, I found my bike, it's in Portland, if anybody knows anybody in Portland let's spread the word and let's try to get it back. I think at that point it just spread like wildfire.”    

This is when Hatfield got involved. After she got her bike back, she kept using social media to help other people find theirs. So when she heard LaBo’s bike had surfaced on Craigslist, she put the word out on Twitter.  

She tweeted at a Portland news anchor, who’s also a cyclist, who in turn loops in Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams. Soon, the bike had a huge Twitter following. LaBo and his DeRosa got messages of support from across the country.    

At one point, someone in Portland messaged Hatfield directly, saying they spotted the bike outside a restaurant in Portland – but it was gone. But more and more people were retweeting the news. A Portland police officer takes on the case. And that’s when the original seller finally emailed back Justin LaBo – with bad news. He had just sold it.    

“But he did give me an email address,” LaBo says.    

LaBo sent that email address – along with the original seller’s email – to the Portland cop, who was able to put some pressure on them. The seller emailed LaBo, saying he’d give the bike back as long as the cops don’t show up. So one of Jenny Oh Hatfield’s friends in Portland offered to go and pick it up.    

But it wasn't over yet.    

“So Saturday morning, 9am, he goes over there, rings the doorbell, rings the doorbell, rings the doorbell,” remembers LaBo. “No answer.”      

Across the country, thousands of people wait. And an hour later, the door opens. Hatfield’s friend send her a triumphant picture, the DeRosa frame held up for all to see.    

“So many times it was just, it was done,” says LaBo. “The ad was down, it's done, we're never going to get it back. or he's not going to respond to the email, you know we should just give up. I thought for sure it was not going to happen. but I guess we got really lucky.”    

There are more success stories. Someone on Hatfield’s stolen bicycle Google group recently posted a story of a guy finding his stolen mountain bike on Craigslist. Another just found his distinctive mint green bike, also through Craigslist.    

Still, many more bikes are stolen than are ever returned to their owners.    

In a warehouse near Jack London Square, Oakland police officer Dan Dowd of the Bicycle Unit showed me where the police keep all those recovered bikes. There are about 50 of them, all recovered in the last three months. The  unit has an open door on Thursdays for people to come in and look for their stuff.

“We’ve had people come by and they just take a look at the bikes,” he tells me. “I just let them look through the bikes and see, but again very rarely do we, actually I don’t think I’ve ever had one person in the approximately 10 years I’ve been working here come in here and say, ‘Oh yeah, that is my bike!’ We have, as I’ve said, recovered a couple but they were by serial number.”  

That’s key – by serial number. Officer Dowd says there’s no way for the police to return a stolen bike without a serial number and the police report, so make sure you write it down before your bike gets stolen.    

Jenny Oh Hatfield has some more advice for bicycle owners. “You should also take lots of photographs of your bicycle,” she says. “A lot of times when people email me on the Google groups, they don't have a picture, they don't have any sort of great description, and they're like, well it's a red road bike and it had a basket on it.”  You need something that’s unique and will stand out if someone spots it on Craigslist or at a flea market, she says. 

Justin Labo says, “The things that seem to have the best success are Craigslist, eBay, cycling forums, and you know, I think social media as well,” he says. “If you can find the right channels to broadcast the message then I think people will pay attention.”    

Jun Takeda, meanwhile, had some pretty basic advice: “Best thing to do is just to not get it stolen in the first place.”    

Right. But if it is stolen, all the bike hunters say: keep looking. You might be surprised at what turns up.

Relive the entire DeRosa saga as it unfolded on Jenny Oh Hatfield's Storify.

Jun Takeda checking out a bike at the Laney Flea Market in Oakland (Isabel Angell)
Jun Takeda checking out a bike at the Laney Flea Market in Oakland (Isabel Angell)
Justin LaBo and his DeRosa
Justin LaBo and his DeRosa