Jesse Jones

Stolen bikes can be an ATM for criminals selling them online

Seattle, WA — In a grocery store parking lot in south Seattle, Sarah Yerkan is on a mission to get her bike back.

It was stolen out of her fenced back deck on a Sunday and put up for sale on OfferUp by Monday.

And on Tuesday, a makeshift bike recovery team is going to retrieve it.

“Met with the person and said hey this is, this bike is stolen. We’re going to recover it for the owner,” says Yerkan.

Thankfully, they walk away with the bike and Sarah returns home safely.

“It was a harrowing experience but it was - I don’t care. I’m just happy the bike’s back,” she says.

An average 5.3 bikes were reported stolen every day this year so far in Seattle. Many of them will end up being sold in online marketplaces like Craigslist, Facebook, and OfferUp.

Bryan Hance is the co-founder of Bike Index. He checked one night of stolen bikes in Seattle for us.

“So we have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 bikes all reported stolen in the Seattle area,” says Hance. “Not all of them have prices. This one does. It’s $5,000 bucks. This one’s $1,500. This one’s $5,000. This one’s $900.”

The nonprofit website has a database where users from around the world enter their bike’s serial numbers and photos. They can be checked by other cyclists, bike shops, and law enforcement.

Hance says he has the most issues with one particular marketplace: OfferUp.

“It is the single largest source, beating craigslist, beating Facebook marketplace, beating physical shops. It is and has been the most problematic of the services,” says Hance.

Hance says anonymity and easy account set-up helps thieves succeed on the site.

“The way it functions, the way it’s designed, the way it operates, the way it presents information is all tipped in the thieves’ favor,” says Hance.

BikeIndex proposed a partership

One solution Hance has proposed is that OfferUp should force sellers to provide their bike’s serial numbers. That way, his team can check them against the stolen list before they are put up for sale.

“I reached out to them as far back as 2015, sort of trying to open up a dialogue and sort of explaining who we are and what we do and sort of sharing some of our numbers. And it did not go anywhere,” says Hance.

Hance has provided a free back-door into their database. He says OfferUp hasn’t taken Bike Index for a spin. But the Auburn Police Department has.

Detective Eric Mattson is part of a four person team investigating these kinds of cases. They’ve even helped other departments find stolen property.

“If we can see that person selling a specific bike online that we know is stolen, or that’s been identified as stolen by Bike Index or Pacific Northwest stolen bikes, we can contact that agency in that area and say hey, I know this, this is where that bike is, this is who has it,” says Detective Mattson.

When a stolen bike is not just a bike

Ryan’s bike was stolen on Christmas Eve of last year. (We’re not using his last name out of concern for his safety.)

His was one of 37 cases in 2020. At least 45 have been reported stolen this year.

“So I saw that the garage door was ajar. I came over and picked it up, looked in my garage, and my bike was gone,” says Ryan.

And then it was posted on OfferUp.

“I’m like - that’s my bike!” remembers Ryan.

Bothell Police got involved, helped set up the sale, and busted the alleged thieves. But that investigation led to a new one. The result: two pounds of meth, three thousand pills of fentanyl, and several stolen guns recovered.

“It was an amazing case. And a great example of, as I said earlier, great police work. Partnering with our community to get it done. Putting in the time and the resources,” says Bothell Police Sergeant Brett Bernard.

Detective Mattson in Auburn says theft often leads to or fuels other crimes.

And a stolen bike - or other property - is like an ATM. He’ll see individuals barter their stolen property, or sell for pennies on the dollar to a larger re-seller. Who then puts the items online.

“In one of my recent cases the majority of the stolen property that was being purchased by an organization,” says Detective Mattson, “the main customer that was going to this business to sell them property was fueling drugs. It fueled an unbelievable amount of drugs in the area.”

Can regulation take a bite out of crime?

Now, the legislature is getting involved. State Representative Steve Kirby from Tacoma is now writing a bill to help curb the sale of stolen goods in online marketplaces.

“So the bill requires online marketplaces to obtain and verify banking, contact, and tax information,” says Representative Kirby.

The idea is that additional sign-up requirements could make criminals easier to track, and act as a deterrent to use the sites.

“Generally speaking,” says Representative Kirby, “a criminal isn’t going to just keep accurate records of his crime and use a bank account to do it.”

OfferUp’s safety measures

OfferUp representatives say stolen property is prohibited on their platform. The company participates in the LeadsOnline system, used by pawn shops to track stolen goods.

Users can report items or users in the app, and report stolen items online. The company will review reports and has a process for removal.

In a Statement, OfferUp adds:

“We would welcome a relationship with Bike Index in an effort to continue building the safest marketplace possible.”

“So being able to have Bike Index work with OfferUp - a pretty nice thing if they actually tied it all together,” says Ryan in Bothell.

Until then, Sarah Yerkan and Ryan’s bike security will come down to vigilantes, busted locks, and good cops.

“There’s a lot of everyday people that are being victimized and having their property that they’ve worked really hard for stolen from them,” says Detective Mattson.

Both Sergeant Bernard in Bothell and Detective Mattson in Auburn say they do work with OfferUp and other online platforms on cases, with varying levels of success. But it’s after a crime is committed.

So how can you protect yourself? Preparation. Take a rainy day to make a list of your valuables, take photos, save receipts, and record any serial numbers on things like bikes, laptops, and phones. Because if something does get stolen and you find it online, being able to make a positive ID is the best way to get it back.

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