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What to Do When Your Bike Is Stolen in the Bay Area

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Alison LaBonte, left, and Jessie Fernandez, right, install brakes on her bike at the Bicis del Pueblo bike repair shop in the Mission district on Tuesday April 30, 2024. Bicis del Pueblo has been operating since 2011 and through their earn-a-bike program, individuals get a free refurbished bike, donated by the city, and receive lessons on the mechanics and operation of the bike. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Updated 4:30 p.m. Monday

I’ve ridden my bicycle all over the Bay Area since middle school and never had a bike stolen before. But that all changed this year.

During a night out with friends, I locked my bike to a rack in San Francisco’s Castro District. It was a busy intersection, but I was using a sturdy U-Lock (one advertised as “anti-theft,” no less) through the wheel and frame. I’ll only be gone for a few hours, I told myself. But when I got back, both my bike and lock had disappeared without a trace.

Unfortunately, bike theft is common here in the Bay Area — it can happen to anyone, regardless of how much experience you have riding or even how elaborate your system of locks is. However, the Bay is also home to many communities of cyclists who support each other after these types of incidents and are also pushing local officials to boost bike protections.

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KQED spoke to many of these folks — through interviews and Reddit — to gain insights into the necessary actions to take following a bike theft. We also delve into some of the bigger lessons learned after losing what is, for many of us, more than a mode of transport, but also a sidekick we can always depend on.”

If you haven’t lost your bike but are looking for ways to better protect it from theft, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has an extensive guide on how to better lock your ride.

Jump straight to:

What to do first when your bike is missing

You’re looking around. Your palms are sweaty. You’re hoping that maybe you’re just — looking in the wrong place? But you feel it at the bottom of your gut: Your bike has disappeared.

A set of bikes are displayed at the Bicis del Pueblo repair shop in the Mission District on Tuesday April 30, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Remember your No. 1 priority: Your safety

In that moment, what matters the most is making sure you’re safe. Experienced bike thieves can pick a lock in less than a few minutes, so whoever has your bike could still be nearby.

While our first instinct could be to confront whoever took our bike and try to get it back, it’s also important to remember that these situations are unpredictable and could quickly escalate. As you scan the area for any trace of your bike, also keep an eye out for anyone who could be watching you at that moment — and get out of there if you start feeling unsafe.

Start documenting the scene

If you do feel safe staying in the area, write down the street corner you’re closest to, along with any nearby landmarks or recognizable businesses. This information will be helpful later on whether you let your friends on social media know your bike is missing or decide to file a police report.

Other things to look out for are pieces of your bike that were left behind, including wheels, the bike seat, or even the chain. Knowing that your bike is missing certain parts is also relevant information when identifying your bike to others.

How to quickly get the word out about your missing bike

Elisa González of the San Francisco bike community Bicis del Pueblo has one big piece of advice for people who’ve just had their bike stolen: Get the word out on social media as soon as you can.

González got involved with Bicis del Pueblo — which organizes community rides, promotes bike literacy, advocates for inclusive bike infrastructure and holds weekly repair and refurbishment sessions — around the same time her bike was stolen a few years ago.

Alison LaBonte installs brakes on her father’s old bike at the Bicis del Pueblo repair shop in the Mission District on Tuesday April 30, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

“I went through the whole cycle of being shocked, in denial, feeling angry, feeling sad, and finally, in acceptance,” she said.

Being vocal about the theft in your community online can increase your chances of reuniting with your bike, González said. You don’t need to have a massive social media following for this to be effective — and the post can be pretty straightforward, with a photo of your bike that clearly shows the color of the frame, the handlebars and any unique markers like stickers or add-ons. 

If you don’t have a photo of your bike, one option is to look up the make and model online to find a photo that most closely matches what your bike looked like.

So what happens if a friend does spot your bike in the wild? Maybe they spot it at a flea market or a bike shop. Have them reach out to you and share your bike’s serial number with them so they can confirm if it is your bicycle. If it is yours, head over to talk with the vendor or bike shop staff and have ready your serial number along with photos of you with your bike.

And if you or your friends spot someone else using your bike, you may consider negotiating with this person, but keep a few things in mind first:

  • Your safety: Is this a situation that could quickly become unpredictable?
  • Once a bike is stolen: It may go through many different hands, and the person riding your bike may have bought it without knowing it was a missing bike.
  • Avoid escalation: For whatever reason, this person may not be willing to negotiate. Have a plan to exit the situation, prioritizing your safety and that of those around you.
Alison LaBonte works on her bike’s brakes at the Bicis del Pueblo repair shop in the Mission District on April 30, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

What to know about serial numbers

Knowing your bike’s serial number might prove very helpful in tracking it down — and it can also prevent it from being confused with a similar-looking bike.

For most bikes, the serial number is located on their underside: If you flip a bicycle upside down, next to the chainrings, you’ll see there’s a point in the frame where three of the metal tubes come together. That’s where you can usually find the serial number.

(This is a good opportunity to remind your friends to write down their bikes’ serial numbers somewhere — just in case.)

Online communities to repost missing bikes

There are multiple Bay Area-specific groups across social media where riders share details about their bikes and help others find theirs, including stolenbikesbayarea on Instagram and San José Stolen Bicycle Group on Facebook, which includes multiple cities in the South Bay.

You can also add your bike to an online registry, like Bike Index, which is a publicly searchable database of missing bicycles across North America. When community groups, bike shops, or police departments find an abandoned bike, they often search the serial number on Bike Index to see if there’s a rider looking for it somewhere and contact them.

Check: Is the cost of my bike covered by insurance?

If you have home or renters insurance, call your policy provider as soon as possible after your bicycle is stolen — because some insurance plans can actually help cover the cost of a missing bike.

However, this doesn’t mean your insurance company will pay the complete cost of replacing the bike.

There’s usually a deductible you will have to pay first before your insurer doles out any cash. Let’s say you have renters insurance, and your deductible for stolen property is $1,000, but your bike is worth $1,200. This means that you may ultimately get just $200 from your insurer to buy a replacement. But if your bike is worth less than the deductible — let’s say a $800 bike with a $1,000 deductible — then sadly, your insurance won’t be much help.

Something else to keep in mind:  Some insurance policies cover personal property based on its actual cash value (ACV) and not its replacement cost (RCV). The difference is that RCV represents what an object is worth at purchase, while ACV is what it is worth when the owner loses it. Most insurance policies will argue that items like cars, motorcycles and bikes lose value over time. So, if you bought a $2,000 bicycle ten years ago, the RCV is $2,000 — but your insurance company may tell you that the ACV is much lower than that.

If you decide to file a claim with your insurance company, remember that you will have to provide a police report.

How can you report a stolen bike to the police?

If you choose to get the police involved, keep in mind different police departments vary in how they look for missing bikes, but most will usually ask you for:

  • The bicycle’s make
  • Its model
  • Its serial number
  • Sometimes, proof of purchase as well
Alison LaBonte measures the distance between her bike’s brakes on April 30, 2024, at the Bicis del Pueblo repair shop in the Mission District. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Some cities, like San José, collect abandoned bicycles that are not on private property and compare the serial numbers of these bikes with those reported as stolen.

It’s important to mention that not everyone is comfortable with dealing with the police. In its guide on bicycle security, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition notes that it ended any formal relationship with the city’s police department in 2020 due to racialized police violence, adding in a statement that “because policing is interwoven into nearly all current solutions to bike theft, some of our recommendations do involve minimal contact with the police.”

How can I look for a bike in person?

Once a bicycle is stolen, it will likely pass through many different hands. In some cases, someone may buy a bike — either to ride or resell later on — and not even know it was stolen from its previous owner.

In the Bay, there are many places you can buy second-hand bikes where riders have found their stolen bikes. One option is Craigslist: If you glance through the site’s SF Bay portal, you will find an online bike market that changes every day. Make sure to use the selection tools to narrow down your search to save yourself time. If you don’t find it the first time you look, keep coming back for several days, as the listings are updated pretty frequently.

Sergio Navarro fixes the brakes on his bike at the Bicis del Pueblo repair shop in the Mission District on April 30, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Another option is to head out to one of the many flea markets located all over the Bay Area. At some of the bigger ones, like Oakland’s Coliseum Swap Meet or San José’s Berryessa Flea Market, you can usually find a handful of bicycle vendors during the weekend.

If you do happen to spot your bike before anything else, remember once again that after a bike is stolen, it may change hands many times, and the person selling your bike may not even know it was stolen. This is especially important if you decide to talk to the vendor about the bike. For decades, Bay Area flea markets have provided a livelihood to hundreds of vendors and their families, and folks working there are familiar with cyclists looking to find their missing bikes.

If you have your missing bike’s serial number handy, first make sure to compare it with the bike you’ve spotted. Let the vendor know that they have your bike, and if possible, show them the bike’s serial number or photos of you with it. You can always ask market staff for support in clarifying the situation, and it’s always a good idea to bring along a friend as well.

Craigslist and flea markets are also good options for finding much more affordable bikes, which you may want to consider if you need an immediate replacement — especially if your job requires you to have a bicycle.

Letting your bike go 

In some cases, no matter how hard you look, your bike isn’t going to come back.

In 2022, Benjamin Chang’s bicycle was stolen right outside his Oakland apartment. He had placed an AirTag on the bike and saw online that the bike was somewhere in San Francisco. Despite knowing where the bike was, he decided not to go look for it.

“Whoever stole it, isn’t going to resell it,” he said. “My guess is that they’re just using it, and at that point, it’s a tough loss, but the likelihood I’m going to get it back is pretty darn low.”

But he also felt the loss of the bike.

“This was the first bike I had built myself. I had spent a lot of time finding parts for it, putting it together. It was the bike that got me into cycling, so it meant a lot to me,” he said. “I wanted to memorialize it in some fashion.”

And he did. Using a music stand, he created a makeshift memorial for his bike in the garden where it went missing, along with several candles and the message, “Easy come, easy go.”

In a backyard, there is a music stand. On the music stand, there is a piece of paper with a photo of a bicycle printed on it. In front of the music stand, there are two candles.
After his bicycle was stolen outside his home in 2022, Benjamin Chang decided it would be best to accept the bike was permanently gone. Soon after, he built a small makeshift memorial in his yard. (Courtesy of Benjamin Chang)

Seek out a bike community

Compared to many other places in the country, it’s a lot easier in the Bay Area to use a bicycle daily to commute, connect with public transit, grab groceries and meet up with friends (or in my case, go to the club). Along the way, you end up forming a very close bond with your bike.

From left, Bicis Del Pueblo team members Jacqui Gutiérrez, Jessie Fernández and Mampu Lona pose for a portrait at the group’s repair shop in the Mission District on April 30, 2024. Bicis del Pueblo has been operating since 2011. Through their earn-a-bike program, individuals get a free refurbished bike donated by the city and receive lessons on the mechanics and operation of the bike. (Gina Castro/KQED)

“I started riding as a young adult because of Bicis del Pueblo,” said Jacqui Gutiérrez, who is also part of this San Francisco-based bike community. Other folks at Bicis showed her how to customize her bike so it felt like a better fit for her, and now she passes on this knowledge to riders starting their bike journey.

“Bicis del Pueblo was created for working-class communities of color,” she said, adding that one of the goals of the group is to remove financial barriers that prevent people from picking up a bike.

Folks who come to the group’s Tuesday workshops can earn a bike for themselves as they learn about environmental justice, bike accessibility, and how to take care of a bike.

“When people come in here and earn a bike, they’re going to hang out here for a couple hours, and they’re going to either work on their own bike or work on somebody else’s bike,” she said. “Maybe there isn’t money exchanged, but there is a level of reciprocity … people can use the space as a resource, but they’re also contributing in a way that is necessary to keep the space together.”

And as she forms deeper connections with other riders in Bicis del Pueblo, she knows they have her back if her bike disappears.

“I’m part of a bike community,” she said. “My friends are ready to help me look for it and figure out what I need to do.”

There are many groups all over the Bay Area that organize community rides, offer skill-sharing workshops or help make riding more accessible to different groups. They include:

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