The University of Oregon campus saw an increase in bicycle thefts during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data from the UO Police Department. So in a year when people are supposed to stay home, why did thefts increase?
Bryan Hance, co-founder of the national bike registry BikeIndex, said multiple factors contributed to the increase, with one reason being that people simply bought more bikes in the pandemic.
“Nobody wanted to ride the bus. Nobody was going anywhere. Everybody was bored to tears, they wanted to get out of their house” Hance said. “It was just one of these like, anecdotal, weird side effects that like people blew through.”
Hance also said that COVID-19 halted shipping to the U.S. This meant there was a heightened demand for bikes, but a low supply. With the demand being high and bikes being more expensive, thieves were able to make a small fortune.
And, apparently, it’s not hard to sell these stolen bikes. Hance said that there are many more platforms online to sell them without having to prove who the original owner is, from Craigslist to the app OfferUp which Hance called a “cesspool of stolen stuff.”
“If you look on Facebook groups, there's all these posts where people are like, ‘This is the absolute best time to unload all the bikes that have been sitting in my basement because the value on the used market has gone up,’” he said. “Simple supply and demand.”
UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael said another way the pandemic influenced bike theft is the diminished campus population. With people stuck in their homes, there’s nobody to see bike thieves and report them.
“When there's a diminished population, there is more opportunity for property theft. There's less eyes and ears,” Carmichael said. “When the pandemic first hit, my biggest fear was bike theft.”
It’s easy to think of bike theft as a small-time crime, Carmichael said, but UOPD takes it very seriously because it can be dangerous.
In October 2020, UOPD set up near a bike cage because they knew it was going to be hit. Sure enough, they arrested a man trying to break in at 3:40 in the morning. When UOPD took him into custody, officers found a loaded handgun, extra magazines, ammunition and methamphetamine in his possession.
“So this guy who was a prior felon — who was not supposed to possess a firearm anyway, and his prior felonies were violent felonies — was stealing bikes on campus,” Carmichael said. “I don't even want to imagine what would have happened if a student had been out there and confronted this guy.”
According to Carmichael, bike theft is the number one form of property crime for campus police. To combat it, UOPD is trying to install more security cameras focused on bike racks. Carmichael also believes that the addition of community service officers will help add 24-hour surveillance to catch bike thieves.
When it comes to keeping bicycles safe, Eugene BikeIndex ambassador Steve Piercy said it’s important to know the identifying features and serial number.
“If somebody's bicycle gets stolen, police are less likely to help if there is no serial number because they don't have a way of finding who the owner is,” he said. “There's no proof that you are the actual owner of the bike.”
Piercy recommended people register their bicycle with BikeIndex so it is easier to track down. Once registered in the database, people across the country can keep an eye out for it and potentially return it — which is good because stolen bikes can travel far.
Hance said thieves will rent U-Hauls to drive around the state and steal bikes, then cross state or national borders to sell them. They do this to escape registries that are isolated to local areas.
“Not all these guys are [idiots],” Hance said. “Like some of these guys have organization and they're, you know, they're doing this full time.”
In addition to registering the bike’s serial number, Piercy said people need to be smarter about how and where they lock up their bikes. He recommended using two locks to secure the bike to something solid and not leaving it anywhere it is easily visible. Even if a bike is on a balcony, Piercy says thieves will get a ladder to climb up and steal it.
“When it's an easier opportunity for a thief to steal something — they can just grab it and go — they're gonna do it,” Piercy said.