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Bike-theft avengers: Sleuths on Facebook group reunite bikes with owners

The growing popularity of the group, called Stolen Bicycle Avengers, shows just how big a problem bike theft is in Victoria, says its administrator

It’s just a little bit of neon green on an otherwise black bike that catches Sarah Wakefield’s eye.

The self-employed gardener is driving around Victoria when she notices a man riding a matte black bike. A couple of tiny patches of bright green peek out from under the black on the bike’s frame.

“That’s a tell,” she says. The bike looks like it’s been spray painted. What that’s telling Wakefield is that it’s likely stolen.

Wakefield has an eye for noticing a bike that looks out of place. It could be a brand new road bike unattended on a patch of grass, or an electric bike in the hands of someone who doesn’t look like they could afford to buy it.

What’s unique about Wakefield is that when she sees something that doesn’t seem right, she acts on it.

That unattended road bike she saw on Pandora Green was stolen. Wakefield found the owner with the help of a Facebook group designed for this exact purpose — to get more eyes on the street looking for your stolen bike. She got in touch, and the bike was returned to its owner.

For the past few years, Wakefield has been a member of the Facebook group Stolen Bicycle Avengers, where people who have had a bike stolen can post an image and description of it. If any of the more than 7,000 members see the bike, they can contact the owner to come and collect it, or call police if the owner has included a file number.

The group was started about 15 years ago by someone who wanted to create a place where friends of friends could look out for each other’s bikes if they were stolen. Over time, it grew to include the community at large.

The group’s growing popularity reflects how big a problem bike theft is in Victoria, administrator Clare Hall-Patch said in a Facebook message.

“Everyone knows someone who has had a bike stolen, if they haven’t experienced it personally,” she said.

While many bikes disappear forever, the group’s members have been able to facilitate many “happy reunions” for people with their bikes, said Hall-Patch, whose friend started the group. Hall-Patch became the sole administrator by default after the others moved away or gave up their administrator status.

There’s a new post on the page every few days. Bikes are taken from storage rooms in apartment buildings, locked backyard sheds, porches, downtown bike racks and even one off a bike rack on a car while the owner was inside the vehicle.

Group members also post photos of unlocked and unattended bikes whose owner they’re hoping to find. The page is filled with success stories of people who have gotten their bikes back, sometimes as much as 18 months later.

Through the page, Wakefield — a lover of true crime who also volunteers to look for lost dogs — has reunited three people with their stolen bikes.

Although she recently decided to step back from the group due to safety concerns in light of the shooting in Nanaimo of a man who was attempting to retrieve stolen property, she has spent a lot of time driving around between gardening jobs, keeping an eye out for bikes as she drives.

Stopped at a red light, she’ll notice a bike out of place and commit some details to memory to find it on the page later.

“I like the finding of things. It’s very satisfying. It’s doing something good. It’s like volunteering but in kind of a passive way,” said Wakefield.

Bikes are currency on the street

Abigail Urquhart knows how devastating it can be to have a bike stolen. Since her own bike was taken less than a year ago, she’s helped find five or six others. The 17-year-old spends a lot of time riding and walking around downtown Victoria and will often look at the most recent stolen-bike posts and wander around with a friend trying to spot one.

She visits known hot spots for stolen bikes, like shelters and the 900-block of Pandora Avenue (the Facebook group includes a detailed list of spots to visit when hunting for your own stolen bike).

Having experienced homelessness herself, she sees a lot of friends in these spots and often asks if anyone has seen a particular bike.

The bikes she has found have been in these hot spots, often with someone who is unhoused. But the person in possession of a stolen bike might not even realize it’s stolen.

“I obviously search exactly where the homeless population is, and have had the most luck with that. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve done it themselves. Or that they’re conscious that somebody else has done it,” she said.

Victoria police are aware of a few prolific bike thieves in the city, and have dismantled bike chop shops in the past, but it’s hard to say whether there are any sophisticated operations stealing and moving bikes out of the region, said VicPD spokesperson Const. Terri Healy.

“In our experience, I would say they’re generally staying in Victoria,” she said. “There might be something more sophisticated where they’re going out of Greater Victoria, but it’s not something I’m aware of.”

When a bike is reported stolen to VicPD and the serial number is provided, the information is uploaded into a database called the Canadian Police Information Centre, where any police officer in the country can query a serial number on a found bike.

But that’s not where officers have the most success recovering bikes. It’s on the street, where bikes are used as a kind of currency, Healy said.

Recently, after someone had an $11,000 bike stolen and posted to the Avengers group, another person saw the bike and bought it for $40 to return to its owner.

“That gives you an idea of the street value sometimes of some of these bikes, and I think that speaks to people’s desperation, right? If somebody has a substance-use problem, and they need 40 bucks to be able to not feel unwell, then that’s the value at the time,” Healy said.

From time to time, VicPD leaves bait bikes installed with a GPS tracker in areas where bike thieves tend to operate, which often leads to an arrest of a prolific offender, Healy said.

VicPD has many officers who have “a keen interest” in recovering stolen bikes, she said, whether that’s because they’re cyclists themselves or because they understand the impact of losing a bike that can be someone’s only mode of transportation and can cost more than a vehicle.

Still, bike theft is a challenging crime for officers to solve, particularly if owners have limited information about the bike.

“If we don’t have any CCTV footage, or there isn’t a suspect, there really isn’t a ton of investigation that can be done further,” she said.

But if it’s reported to police, officers will be aware of a stolen bike, and might come across it while on patrol. If it’s known to be stolen, officers can seize the bike.

Last week, officers saw a stolen bike file in VicPD’s dispatch queue, and just a few minutes later, they recognized that same bike on the street. “They were able to arrest somebody and return the bike,” Healy said.

If an officer just suspects a bike is stolen but it hasn’t been reported to police — or even if it has been reported but with limited information — it can be difficult for an officer to determine whether to seize the bike.

Just having a make and model often isn’t enough to go on, because that same bike could belong to someone else.

“We can’t take people’s liberties away and start seizing things without legal authority,” Healy said.

That’s why the more information, the better, says Healy, who encourages bike owners to record their bike make and model, serial number and any distinctive features, to take pictures and email the information to themselves or keep it somewhere safe.

Owners can also register their bikes with Project 529, including all relevant information and photos, so if the bike is stolen, they can alert nearby registered users. The registry is also searchable, so if a police department finds a bike, they can check the registry to find the owner.

‘Oh man, again?’

The number of stolen bikes reported each year to Victoria police is down over the last five years, from 771 in 2016 to 550 last year. However, the actual number of stolen bikes is likely higher as some bikes go unreported to police, Healy says.

Some people might not report a theft because they think police have more important crimes to solve and officers won’t put any time into a stolen bike case, but that’s not true, Healy said.

Nearly one-quarter of the 4,564 stolen bikes reported to police over the last five years from 2016 to 2022 were returned to their owners.

Jackie Sadler has been one of those lucky ones. Sadler has had her bike stolen twice. But she’s also gotten it back twice. The first time, four years ago, the bike came back to her two weeks later via VicPD. It had been spray painted and the front tire was popped.

It was taken again about a month ago. When she returned to the spot downtown where she’d locked up her bike, there was just a cut cable lock in its place. “Oh man, again?” she thought to herself.

After a couple of weeks, she gave up hope of seeing her bike again, until she was driving down Cook Street one day and spotted a small patch of bright blue on a bike rim — the colour of her rims — on the side of the road.

She quickly pulled over, and watched in her rearview mirror as a man tinkered with the bike. The distinctive bright blue paint on the bike’s rims had been mostly sanded off but she recognized it as hers. Sadler called police, who were there within a few minutes. Officers quickly verified the bike was hers and let her take it away.

“I kind of felt like I was like part of a SWAT team for a second. My heartbeat was so fast,” Sadler said. The man had been in the process of removing parts from the bike, probably to make it less recognizable.

“It felt like I had a very small amount of time.”

Her bike came back to her slightly damaged and with different handlebars and tires and a different seat, but they’re nicer than the parts she had before.

She suspects the parts are swapped out from other stolen bikes in an attempt to change the bike’s appearance.

The problem of bike theft isn’t limited to the urban core of the capital region.

Laura Hofmann was shocked when two of her son’s bikes were stolen out of their locked shed in North Saanich, including an expensive mountain bike she had saved up for to support her son’s newfound passion for mountain biking.

That sparked a quest for Hofmann, who was determined to get the beloved bike back. “It’s not just a bike. It’s also an emotional attachment,” she said, echoing the sentiment of many who’ve been victims of bike theft.

After receiving a message from someone in the Avengers Facebook group that the bike was spotted downtown, Hofmann headed down there, checking out the hot spots, but wasn’t able to find it.

Days later, she received another message from someone who believed he had just seen her son’s bike in a shelter downtown. Together with police, her husband recovered the bike. It’s a bit dinged up, but it’s back with her son, who was just accepted on a bike-racing team.

“We would never have gotten the bike back if it wasn’t for people watching out for it,” she said.

Looking for solutions

In in an effort to mitigate bike theft, the City of Victoria launched a service last year to provide secure parking downtown.

The coat-check-style bike valet service reopened March 17 after its first season last year.

The service provides free and secure bike parking downtown in Centennial Square seven days a week and accepts all active transportation devices, such as adaptive bikes, cargo bikes, bike trailers, jogging strollers and other personal mobility devices.

The relaunch of the bike valet was celebrated by many in the Stolen Bicycle Avengers group, including people who said they’ll start riding downtown because they know they won’t have to worry about bike theft.

Meanwhile, a North Vancouver-based company is set to launch a device designed to address bike theft.

The GPS-enabled Snik Bike device fits in the steer tube of any bike and automatically pairs with your mobile phone’s bluetooth when you set out for a ride with your phone.

If the device detects movement but can’t reach your phone to connect to bluetooth, it activates GPS to track your bike. The device notifies the owner when the bike starts moving without them.

“I’ve been around a lot of bike theft,” said Snik Bike co-founder Fraser Vaage. “It’s a terrible feeling having your bike stolen. And it’s also a problem that I didn’t see anyone going after.”

The product is generating interest among those concerned about bike theft, including Sadler, who said she can imagine how exciting it would be to be able to track her bike if it was stolen.

“Especially given that I’ve had my bike stolen twice now. It feels like it’s bound to happen again.”

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