March 16, 2010

Bicycle thefts spike in Portland as culprits cut locks


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Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20080703 Thursday, July 3, 2008...Jeannette Frei locks up a bicycle using a cable lock to a chainlink fence at the Casco Bay Ferry terminal. Frei, from Sacramento, California, is in Maine for the wedding of a friend, and had borrowed the bike to do a little exploring in Portland.

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Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20080703 Thursday, July 3, 2008....Bicycles used by commuters from the Casco Bay islands are often locked to the chainlink fence at the Casco Bay Ferry terminal.

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Staff Writer

David Ericson decided that biking to his job at Whole Foods Market was good on the wallet, good for the planet and good for his health.

''I had to get up a little earlier, but it was totally worth it,'' said Ericson, who shopped for a month before picking out the Giant commuter bike that was just right.

But his enthusiasm wilted like week-old lettuce last month when he left work to find someone had cut his cable lock and swiped his ride from the store's bike rack.

''I'm kind of bitter about it,'' he said.

Sadly, Ericson has a lot of company -- bicycles thefts in Portland are on the rise.

Through just the first three months of good weather, there have been 67 bicycles reported stolen in Portland, including a whopping 34 in the month of May, according to police. And the number of thefts often rises as the summer progresses.

''Bikes are always the hot commodity,'' said Dan Knight, a Portland police officer who also is an avid rider. ''If you leave it unlocked, it's probably going to be gone, whether it's in your garage with the door open or in your backyard. They just disappear.''

Some of the increased theft may be attributable to more people using bicycles to save on gas and minimize the carbon footprint of car commuting. But it may also reflect a growing aggressiveness by thieves.

Historically, unlocked bicycles have been victims of opportunistic thieves. But now, more and more bicycles that are locked are having the locks cut, suggesting premeditated bike theft, said Portland crime analyst Tracey Cornell.

That is what shocked Meg Gray as much as anything. She was visiting a friend on a quiet residential street off Forest Avenue and had locked her Trek 4900 to the front porch. But someone swiped her bike without disturbing anyone inside, leaving only the broken lock behind, along with her friend's less pricey bike.

''I was totally attached to it. It was my transportation,'' Gray said. ''That bike was worth more than my first car.''

She distributed posters showing her missing favorite possession and even sweetened her cash reward by offering a homemade strawberry pie, but no luck.

''Every time I see a bike I play the 'Is that my bike?' game. And it never is,'' Gray said.

Recovering a stolen bicycle and catching the thief is rare, said Portland police Sgt. Bob Martin. Without a description of the thief, police can only hope to match a recovered bicycle with a database of serial numbers.

''They're next to impossible to investigate,'' he said. ''We usually wait for them to show up on someone's lawn and then we recover it.''

Bike enthusiasts speculate that the stolen bicycles are either moved out of the city or dismantled and sold for parts to unsuspecting buyers.

There have been a few reports of people selling high-priced bicycles at a steep discount, sometimes late at night in the Old Port. If a deal sounds too sweet, a buyer might want to think twice about supporting the stolen bike trade, victims say.

Charles Cole, manager at Back Bay Bicycle, said that is one reason the shop refuses to pay cash for used bicycles, offering instead to take them in trade toward the purchase of a new bike.

''We have seen quite a spike (in theft reports),'' Cole said. ''In the past if someone was securing it with a cable lock, they were fairly secure. Now bikes are getting stolen from really populated places like Monument Square and the USM library, where people are using cable cutters.''

And it's not only the high-end bikes that are targeted.

''A lot of times the bike thief will just grab whatever they can. They'll steal a department store bike just as quick as a pretty nice bike,'' he said.

Victims have taken to advertising their loss on Craigslist, hoping that anyone in the market for a used bicycle will report seeing one that matches a stolen bike's description.

The online classifieds also have helped nab crooks. In Boston, one victim recognized his missing bike for sale online and contacted police, who set up a sting to buy it. The officers arrested the thief at a parking lot when he arrived to make the sale.

''It's very difficult to recover a bicycle once it's stolen unless you catch a suspect in the act or it's a situation where it's a neighborhood kid you know,'' said Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.

Bike thefts also are on the rise in Boston, and officials there are urging residents to etch their driver's license number into two places on the frame as well as recording the serial number so a bike's true owner can be quickly identified.

Jeannette Frei of Sacramento, Calif., who was visiting Portland for a friend's wedding, said the only time she doesn't lock her bike back home is when she's hauling it up to her office or into her apartment for safekeeping.

For bicycle aficionados, a cherished bike has personality and can't always be easily replaced.

Matthew Rosler has several bikes he uses in commuting year-round to his job in Portland. It was his 1970s Trek road bike that was stolen from near the Greyhound bus terminal last month.

''It was my father's bike when he was growing up,'' Rosler said. ''I'm 25 and we sort of had a connection with that nice old vintage bike.''

Police urge residents to keep their bikes as safe as possible, and some have responded by investing in better locks. Others are bringing them in off the street, rather than leaving them on car racks or in the garage.

Ericson said his employer has added a video camera to keep watch over the bike rack to prevent future thefts. That's some comfort as he shops for a replacement bike.

''I'll probably have a new one inside a month,'' he said, but he'll be skeptical if he sees a nice bike at a cheap price.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20080703 Thursday, July 3, 2008...Commuters from the Casco Bay islands often use bicycles locked up at the terminal for transportation around town after they arrive at the Casco Bay Ferry terminal.


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