Seeking Revenge In The 'Underworld' Of Stolen Bikes

Feb 15, 2013
Originally published on February 18, 2013 1:03 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 6, 2012.

In 2006, thieves stole writer Patrick Symmes' bike in broad daylight on a crowded, New York City street. This inspired Symmes to set out to catch a bike thief — any bike thief.

He tells the tale of this revenge-fueled, cross-country journey in the Outside magazine piece "Who Pinched My Ride?" The story is filled with GPS trackers, police stakeouts and undercover stings in what Symmes describes as "the dangerous underworld of vanished bicycles."

By some estimates, more than 1 million bike thefts go unreported each year. The annual value of stolen bikes is as much as $350 million, according to the FBI and the National Bike Registry.

"It's one of the solvents that makes the underground economy in America run," Symmes tells NPR's Neal Conan. "Police have — officer after officer told me — there's four currencies: there's cash, sex, drugs and bikes because you can steal them."

Most of the bikes ends up on Craigslist and eBay, others may go to flea markets or pawnshops. Still, for many police departments, these crimes are not a priority.

Symmes was able to secure a copy of the surveillance tape of the moment his bike was stolen. The tape caught two thieves as they sawed and hammered through his bike lock for 17 minutes. He estimates that 142 people walked by and only one tried to intervene.

"Almost right in front of you, magically the bike disappears," Symmes says. "You could put it in fast forward and watch it just sort of vanish. And it became this obsession, I admit."

For five years after his first encounter with bike thieves, Symmes spent time gradually working up schemes to try to catch them in the act. He started in New York, made his way to San Francisco and then to Portland, Ore.

The Portland police department is one of relatively few who will investigate bike thefts, because many of the officers are bicyclists. "They're enraged about this, and they want to get all involved." Symmes got an entire robbery squad to assist in setting up stings around downtown Portland.

In order to avoid losing your bike, Symmes recommends keeping a record of the bike serial number so that you can track it if it is stolen, locking the seat, and putting locking hex nuts on the front wheels. He also stresses the importance of having a good lock. But he warns that even high-quality locks won't stop the most ambitious thieves: "If they can't steal your whole bike, they'll steal the wheels. If they can't steal the wheels, they take the seat."

In the end of his journey, Symmes only had one actual run-in with a bike thief, a schizophrenic man who promptly returned the bike after Symmes chased him down. "So it was not the sort of vengeance that I dream about," Symmes said. "It was kind of an immersion in the real underbelly and the street people and the crisis in this country over issues that have nothing to do with bikes."

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This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

One day, Patrick Symmes rode his bike in from Brooklyn, met his sister for a hamburger in Midtown Manhattan and emerged to find his bike gone - a cheap bike, admittedly, but one he loved. Its loss prompted a revenge-fueled journey, complete with GPS trackers, undercover stings and a good old-fashioned bait and switch. Symmes documented his quest to catch a bike thief - any bike thief - in a piece called "Who Pinched My Ride?" in the February 2012 issue of Outside magazine.

As this is a rebroadcast, please note we're not going to be able to take new calls today. Patrick Symmes joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back.


CONAN: And I have to ask you. Got a copy of the surveillance video of your bike getting stolen. After watching it for the 30th time, did you begin to wonder if you had a compulsive disorder?

SYMMES: Thirtieth time? What are you talking about? I'm at, like, the 900th time now. It's infuriating to see something happen with this impunity. Almost right in front of you, magically the bike disappears. You could put it in fast forward and watch it just sort of vanish. And it became this obsession, I admit. You know, I spent the next five years, I think, gradually working up my schemes.

CONAN: And the schemes would, well, take you across the country. You eventually moved across the country. The schemes didn't take you there, but you took your schemes with you.

SYMMES: Yeah. I headed out. I started out working on this in New York City, and I finished up in Portland, Oregon, with a stop in San Francisco in between. I would pretty much do something similar in each city, which was try to figure out where stolen bikes were going, sort of get inside the market for stolen bikes, see who is stealing them, talk to police and set out my own bikes and just see what happened and try to track them.

CONAN: And on a small level, this is big business.

SYMMES: Oh, yes. It seems like bicycles are so innocent and small and nothing, but there is about a million a year that disappear. That's our best figure, given that the vast majority are never even reported stolen. You know, it is an estimate, but, by some estimates, $350 million worth of merchandise a year.

And this is a principal currency of the street. It's one of the solvents that makes the underground economy in America run. Police have - officer after officer - told me there's four currencies: there's cash, sex, drugs and bikes because you can steal them. They're portable. You can get away on them. You can turn them into a fix. You can put it on - ride to a public library, put it on Craigslist, and two hours later you have $100. So this is big business.

CONAN: And there are, well, something like $350 million worth of these.

SYMMES: Yeah. And every now and then you get an eccentric character who's a master thief and is sort of captivating like this guy in Toronto, Igor Kenk, who is sort of a queer intellectual Slovenian, who ended up stealing, I think, 2,800 bikes.

CONAN: And kept them.

SYMMES: Yeah. He was compulsive and still insists they were all his.


SYMMES: But most of them - it's, you know, sort of a sad, sometimes kind of scary, violent thing to work on this story because the average bike thief is a desperate street person. I - in the end, I really, you know, caught in the sense of running down and putting my hand on one guy, and he turned out to be a schizophrenic street person.

So it was not the sort of vengeance that I dream about, you know, or I'm going to catch the guys who stole my bike on the surveillance tape. It's - was - it was kind of an immersion in the real underbelly and the street people and the crisis in this country over issues that have nothing to do with bikes.

CONAN: You found just that one bicycle thief as pathetic as he was. Yet, you found an awful lot of interesting stuff about the market in stolen bikes. For example, the various places that people go - and the suspicions one would have when one sees what you describe as a Frankenbike.

SYMMES: Yeah. One of the most popular things to do with stolen bikes is to switch them up a little bit. So you sell your stolen bike to somebody for 20 bucks or 100 bucks. You know, it may go online. It may go through Craigslist or eBay or local postings. It may go to a flea market. It may go to a pawnshop, depending on the jurisdiction.

Sometimes people will steal in one jurisdiction, and they know which place it's easier to sell it in, so they go across the city line or something. The method varies from place to place. In San Francisco, there's an open-air street market in stolen bikes where I was offered a bike every 60 seconds, standing on Market Street.

CONAN: Every 60 seconds.


CONAN: All kinds of bikes?

SYMMES: Yeah. And there was, you know, this was just all kinds of stolen merchandise, but, yeah, there were delivery bicycles for sale. A fight broke out while I was there. I had to pedal away as fast as I could on my hot bike.

CONAN: It was interesting. At one point, you buy a stolen bike. This, I think, was in San Francisco.

SYMMES: Yeah. I think I bought quite a few stolen bikes. But there's only one where they didn't even pretend. You know, the guy just admitted. He said, yeah, I looked it up online. It's a $700 bike.

CONAN: And your negotiating tactic was?

SYMMES: To run for my life. I ended up paying $125 for it, which the San Francisco Police told me was about 25 bucks too much because they themselves are out actually busting bike thieves and doing these operations and doing things and stuff. But they barely put a dent in the trade.

CONAN: And they seem to be, along with Portland, one of the relatively few police departments who seem to even care about bicycles.

SYMMES: Yeah. And surprise, surprise. There's this overlap where police departments that - where the cops themselves are bicyclists. They're enraged about this, and they want to get all involved. I had the Portland police, you know, sort crawling at, you know, detectives were volunteering to work on these things. I ended up with six - the entire robbery squad following me around on bicycles in downtown Portland sort of setting up stings.

And places like San Francisco, Houston as well have tried to crack down on this, sometimes using the same kind of techniques I was using, which was these little GPS trackers that you install on the bottom of your bike. And you can actually watch on the Internet as it's pedaled away by somebody and sort of figure out where it goes. The London police have also experimented with that.

CONAN: And they tend do it, the police there, on bikes that are higher end, over 1,500 bucks because?

SYMMES: It's a felony.

CONAN: It's a felony. Has anyone in your experience gone to jail, prison time for stealing a bicycle?

SYMMES: There's a San Francisco police detective who's made a specialty out of pursuing bike thieves, and he told me that he didn't think there was one who'd spent a single night in jail just for that. They might have spent one night, the night of their arrest, but jail time, no. They get extended probation because they were already on probation for something else.

CONAN: We're talking with Patrick Symmes, Outside magazine contributor. "Who Pinched My Ride?" is the title of his piece. Josh is on the line from Sacramento.

JOSH: Yeah. Just in regards to your story, I actually had an experience with my bike being stolen out of my house about two, three months after my wife and I bought a house in a new neighborhood. And so immediately that day - I was one of probably maybe three or four people in all of Sacramento that had this specific bike. It was a Bianchi Pista Concept track bike. It was over $1,500. So I immediately started calling all of the bike shops in the neighborhood that I knew bought bikes and just as well as the one that was nearest to my house.

And they said they had gotten a call earlier that day from a person asking how much they sold Bianchi Pista Concept 4. So they were just basically butchering the name, and he had remembered that that seemed kind of odd.


JOSH: So I had sent a detective that way because they had found the number in the caller I.D., and nothing ever came of it. And then two months later, at about 2 in the morning, I got a call. And it was the cops. They were around the corner from my house, had found my bike in a neighbor's house and tried to ride it over and couldn't figure out how to ride it, so he walked it over. And I immediately decided I couldn't have a nice bike in that neighborhood and sold it on Craigslist.

SYMMES: Yeah. You had too much bike, my friend.

JOSH: Yeah. Apparently.

CONAN: Well, Josh, did you get a, you know, something less ambitious to ride around the neighborhood?

JOSH: Yeah. I actually bought an English three-speed from a garage sale.

SYMMES: You know, this is the advice that David Byrne gives. He's, you know, (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Mr. Talking Heads.

SYMMES: Yeah. But he's a bike rider and did a book about this. And he says at the end, buy a cheap bike.

JOSH: Well, yeah. And the funny thing is is that when they got the bike, they went there on a noise complaint, and the guy who had stolen it just took off running. And there was like a helicopter chase through our neighborhood. But the person who actually live there, they had taken him in on, you know, possession of stolen goods or something like that, and nothing ever came of it. I tried to follow up and see what kind of court case was going to happen and nothing.

CONAN: Well, Josh, we're at least glad you got your bike back to sell it.


JOSH: Me too.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

JOSH: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: We're being flooded with emails. This one from Timothy: At the beginning of a new TV series called "Revenge," they quote Confucius. If you decide to set out on a road of revenge, first dig two graves. I'm sure that's been pointed out to you before, Patrick Symmes. This from Dexterity: I've had two bikes stolen. Police can't do anything. One even laughed at me. I'm contemplating the same GPS trick as your guest, but I just never started it. One problem with the GPS trick that you started is these are expensive too.

SYMMES: Yeah. They're getting cheaper. And, of course, there's always an arms race. Thieves will figure out what they are. You can already buy them online. There's a company called Pegasus Technologies that sells these little ones disguised as the red reflector that goes on the back of your bike.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SYMMES: But sooner or later, thieves will figure it out. And they'll get smaller, and we'll buy smaller, more expensive gizmos.

CONAN: One of the saddest things about your article is there apparently is no bike too beaten up or too old to be worth stealing.

SYMMES: Yeah. It was a little depressing. Instead of catching thieves - often, I found almost all locks work. But if they can't steal your whole bike, they'll steal the wheels. If they can't steal the wheels, they take the seat. Even the brake pads were stripped off from one of my bikes that I left up on 44th Street in New York where I had my original bike stolen on (unintelligible) I put one right back there, hoping to catch the same guys. And nope, the lock was too good.

CONAN: No such luck. Here's an email from John in Alameda, California: I've lost six bikes to theft since 1971. Never recovered one until I recovered my stolen Peugeot steel-framed mixed after three weeks of intense marketing and search efforts. If you like or love your bike and want a chance to get it back, do this before it's stolen: One, take detailed photos of it. Record all the info including your serial number. The more unique the bike, the better the odds of finding and recovering it.

Two, register or license it with local agencies as well as bike clearing houses. Three, stuff a business card or other owner's info inside the frame so you can prove the bike is yours. Four, if the bike has a steel frame and you can stand to do this, engrave your driver's license number on the frame so it can be identified. A lot of work.

SYMMES: Yeah, that's all great advice. Do some of it. You don't have to do everything, but do write that serial number down and don't be like me, forget where you put it. And also, you know, you need a quality lock. I think most locks are pretty good and will work especially if you use them. If you live in a high-crime area near a campus or in a big, big city with a lot of crime, then you want to lock your seat down and put locking hex nuts on your front wheel. That's David Byrne's other piece of advice: get ready your quick release.

CONAN: "Who Pinched My Ride?" is the title of the article in Outside. Patrick Symmes is the author. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Mike, and Mike is with us from Mankato in Minnesota.

MIKE: Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MIKE: I didn't have a bike stolen, but my ex-girlfriend I was with at a time had a bike stolen from an apartment building that we were living in. And oddly enough, we moved just a couple blocks away, and we had seen her bike, exact same bike down to the frilly castle she had on the handle bars chained up to a bike rack. And without knowing if it was illegal or not, we had taken both cutters, snipped the chain and took the bike back.

CONAN: So you stole your stolen bike back?

MIKE: Yes.

SYMMES: We won't tell anyone.


CONAN: And we swear we can't identify your phone number.

MIKE: Oh, OK. That's good.

CONAN: All right, Mike. And was this a great moment of gratification?

MIKE: Yes, it was.

CONAN: What did you do to celebrate?

MIKE: We went for a bike ride.


CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: We never found out who took the bike. We just found the bike and took it back.

CONAN: OK. This is from Dan in St. Louis: My bike was stolen from a government office building in Milwaukee years ago, where I worked as an office boy one summer. It was my main means of getting around. The thieves went into the back of the office to get it. A couple of days later, as I morosely wandered the neighborhood, I saw someone wandering it. I grabbed the payphone, called the office to tell them I was after the bike.

I ran up to the thief, tried to look as menacing as I could and said I would not report the person but I know they stole the bike and I wanted it back. The thief, probably 13 to my 20, dropped the bike and took off. I proudly returned to the office only to find out that everyone had pinched in to buy me a new one, a much better bike than my Sears 10-speed. Oh, well, I have to admit, it took some of the thrill out of my accomplishment.


SYMMES: Yes. Well, be careful when you go running down bike thieves. It really is a better idea to, if you see your bike, call the police and tell them rather than take the law into your own hands.

CONAN: Matthew is on the line with us from Auburn in New York.

MATTHEW: Hi, Neal. I have a stolen bike story that happened about 15 years ago. Right after I graduated from college, I went over to London, England. And my friend and I, we went over there, and we just was waiting tables for a while. So I brought a bicycle, a BMX bicycle with me. And my friend, he borrowed it one day to go to work at his waiting tables' job. And when he came back that day, he said, I'm sorry, Matt, your bike has been stolen. And so, you know, life went on. I ended up - I'm walking everywhere at this point.

And so then - well, a month later, I'm walking on, you know, the street in London, very busy street, you know, like any city, and there is this guy coming towards me on my bicycle. It was pretty distinct. I could see a sticker on the front that, you know identified it as mine. And so I had to make a decision what am I going to do with him. You know, this is my - definitely my bicycle. Am I going to let him go past me or am I going to do something?

So what I decided to do was just I kind of grabbed the front handle bars of the bike. And I'm not a very big guy or very confrontational, but I just said, this is my bike. I want it back. And he started swinging at me, swinging his fist at me. And so what I did is I just dragged us into the road and made traffic stop and made a big, huge scene the whole thing.

CONAN: And did you get your bike back?

MATTHEW: Well, he said - he - I convinced him that it was my bike by - I reached - finally, you know, things had calmed down and we're lying in the road. And, you know, one of those big, red double-decker bused had stopped, and people are coming out of the shops, and I'm saying, this man has my bike. And so to convince him that it was mine - because he was saying that this is not your bloody bike, and I said it is. I reached down and I unlocked the lock that was still locked on the bike, which - and it turns out, uncovered the lie that my friend had told me that he had locked my bike.


CONAN: Well...

MATTHEW: When in fact - so ultimately, what this did was it uncovered a lie that you never in a million years would have expected to have been revealed.

CONAN: All right. Matthew, thanks very much for the call. A cautionary tale, you can look at the problem.

SYMMES: Yeah, it is international as well, I know.

CONAN: Our thanks to Patrick Symmes, a contributing writer to Outside magazine. There's a link to his piece "Who Pinched My Ride?" at our website. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.