Crime

Inside Victoria's bike theft underground

One trick involves thieves hacking into condo security systems to gain access to bike storage lockers

By Anna J. James
August 4, 2020
Crime

Inside Victoria's bike theft underground

One trick involves thieves hacking into condo security systems to gain access to bike storage lockers

By Anna J. James
Aug 4, 2020
Images from an alleged "chop shop" operating within Beacon Hill Park that was raided last month (Source: Victoria Police)
Crime

Inside Victoria's bike theft underground

One trick involves thieves hacking into condo security systems to gain access to bike storage lockers

By Anna J. James
August 4, 2020
Inside Victoria's bike theft underground
Images from an alleged "chop shop" operating within Beacon Hill Park that was raided last month (Source: Victoria Police)

On a Saturday night in July, Aidan O’Connell, 21, locked his Norco CCX to a Herald Street bike rack and proceeded to meet friends for dinner. When he returned three hours later to collect it, the bike—and the pole—were gone.

“I’ve had every single bike that I’ve ever owned stolen,” O’Connell told The Capital.  “It was pretty crazy. They actually pulled the bike poll out of the ground—I’ve never seen that before.” 

The bike had belonged to O’Connell’s father. “He’s been gone for six years and I’d been riding it ever since,” he said. Little did O’Connell know, by the time he filed a police report, his bike might not even have been on the Island anymore.

O’Connell’s bike was attached to this rack. It was removed from the ground and stolen (Source: Aidan O’Connell)

While most drivers can spend their entire lives without getting their car stolen, it is the rare bike rider in Victoria who hasn’t been the victim of some kind of theft. Either they’ve lost their ride entirely, or had it stripped of wheels, lights, seats or panier bags. Just in the last month, VicPD has confirmed the theft of 41 bikes. So far in 2020, 250 bikes have been stolen in Victoria, and 735 in 2019.

A Victoria Facebook group called The Stolen Bicycle Avengers boasts 4,423 members, and catalogues a running tally of bikes stolen from bike racks, inside locked garages or just brazenly taken right in front of their owners. “I left my bike on the fence and stepped away to talk to someone, 5 minutes later when I looked back I saw someone drop their bike, jump on mine, and bike away,” wrote one member of a theft last week along the Lochside Trail. As with O’Connell, many members report being repeat victims of bike thieves. “Almost six months since I had something stolen. Knew the streak had to come to an end!” wrote a user in October reporting the theft of his Giant Trance 2. 

Behind this spate of bike disappearances is an increasingly complex criminal underground streamlined to turn stolen bikes into money and drugs.  

“Bikes can be traded easily through fences [an individual who buys and sells stolen goods] for drugs of choice,” said Vancouver Police officer Rob Brunt. With almost thirty years policing experience, Brunt is quite possibly the only police officer in North America specializing fulltime in bike theft. He was instrumental in reducing bike theft in Vancouver by 40% since the launch of the bike registry app 529 in 2015, on which Brunt is a consultant. 

“I’ve been all over Canada—whether or not it's a big city, bicycles are a huge commodity because they are the only form of transport where there is no VIN [serial] number,” said Brunt, who just this spring was part of an operation that secured a public storage unit with 200 stolen bikes in downtown Vancouver.

“Most people are looking for ‘easy steals’,” said Christine Warde, owner of North Park Bikes.

If the bike isn’t that expensive, Warde says that people usually check one of three spots populated by vulnerable people like Beacon Hill Park (although she does not encourage this). Just last month, Victoria Police raided a suspected “chop shop” in a secluded area of Beacon Hill Park replete with power tools, industrial torches and dozens of bikes and bike parts. 

Usually, the simplest way to cash in a stolen bike is via second-hand sites such as Used Victoria and Kijiji. To paraphrase a Reddit poster: if you’re offered a $20 bike on Craigslist and it’s a $2000 Schwinn Homegrown, you’re supporting a criminal enterprise. 

The more expensive bikes, meanwhile, “are known to be put in vans and taken out of town for sale like to Vancouver or Nanaimo,” said Warde. 

A screenshot of VicPD’s crime map from the past four weeks showing a cluster of thefts, represented by the money bag symbol, around the downtown area where Aidan’s bike went missing (Source: VicPD CityProtect).

“Bike theft is off the charts in Victoria,” said Victoria resident Lynn K., who provided a pseudonym to The Capital for fear of having her identity known to those who stole her bike. In April, Lynn’s Rad Power Bike was stolen from inside a locked bike room at her residence. She said that months later, she still feels “violated” by the intrusion. 

Lynn posted about her missing bike on Stolen Bicycle Avengers, and was soon contacted by a man who claimed to work with the homeless on Pandora Street. He told her, “he could help me get it back if I put out a poster offering a reward,” When she Googled the man’s name and found he convicted of sexual assault, she declined his offer. 

Contacting the police, she said a VicPD officer told her, “they [the thieves] are taking them out of Victoria and moving them [bikes] to Nanaimo, Cowichan, the mainland, Mission." She added “they come equipped with a full range of tools to break in anywhere at any time” including screwdrivers, grinders, and stolen swipe keys to access apartment buildings.

A recent post on The Stolen Bicycle Avengers even describes a complex scam that involves damaging a building’s security system so that it resets to factory. Then, once the system has been repaired, a thief returns to key in the system’s default keyless entry code. 

In May, The Capital spoke with an outreach worker who predicted the rise of property thefts, as those dependent on drugs had all of their income streams, like retail theft, cut off due to COVID-19. And indeed, Capital Region bike theft does not appear to be in decline. 

BikeMaps.org is a crowd-funded bike registry that maps bike activity worldwides from stolen and lost bikes to hazards and collisions. The map identifies Victoria’s CRD, near Johnson and Pandora Street, as the place where most bikes are stolen (45). The second largest theft hotspot is Rocklands (14). 

Victoria Police also run their own bike registry to catch locally recovered bicycles, but reselling a stolen bike is  made all that much easier because, unlike cars, once a bike leaves a municipality there is no national database to track it. 

“We found a bike in the Downtown Eastside two years after it was taken in Ottawa. Bikes from Prince George have been recovered in San Francisco,” said Brunt with the Vancouver Police.

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