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Shifting gears

Thieves rack up bikes, locked or not

By Danielle Dreilinger
August 31, 2008
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Joseph Turner loved his new bike - a multicolored Fuji - that was a present for his 58th birthday this summer.

Not a month later, the Cambridge resident locked up the bike behind the Davis Square T station. When he returned, tired from standing up at his catering job, rain pouring down, the bike was gone.

"It was just devastating," he said.

He posted fliers around the neighborhood offering a $100 reward, but so far no luck.

With victims like Turner and others, police statistics show that reported bike thefts in Somerville have risen 45 percent this year. Through Aug. 20, 81 had been reported stolen, compared with 56 over the same period last year.

The surge makes Somerville stand out in this area.

In Boston, bicycle thefts rose just slightly, to 113 in the first five months of this year from 109 in January to May last year. And in Brookline, Police Captain John O'Leary had 23 reports of stolen bikes for all of last year, but only five to date this year - and summer is considered the high season for thefts.

In Cambridge, "We know that bike theft is on the rise," said Kathleen Murphy, a member of the Police Department's bike patrol unit. But the rise was about 20 percent, to 149 bikes reported stolen this year through Aug. 14 - 105 since June 1 - compared with 124 bike theft reports from Jan. 1 to Aug. 14 last year.

Murphy attributed the increase in thefts to the increase in bike ridership. Also, in bad economic times, she said, "people are just out to make that extra buck."

Somerville Police Chief Anthony Holloway has a similar explanation, pointing to "more people riding bikes" and "crimes of opportunity." If you leave your bike unlocked for just a minute while running an errand, he said, "that minute is too long."

Whatever the reasons, the topic of bicycle thefts has made its way into such online forums as Craigslist:

"I loved this bike. It was my only means of transportation," wrote a Fenway neighborhood resident.

From Somerville: "This was totally premeditated unless the [thief] carries around wire cutters with him at all times."

It's even hit close to home. My friend Ryan Agate, 27, saved up $500 to buy a Redline 925, only to have it stolen three weeks later from his Somerville house, where it was locked to a porch and could not be seen from the street.

Agate said, "You know the kid was like, 'Whatever, this dude can totally buy a new one,' and I totally can't."

He said bike shops told him afterward, "You buy them in the morning, you go home, lock 'em up, and they're gone when the people get home."

A couple months ago, Ethan Gilsdorf, City Weekly's regular Shifting Gears columnist, wrote about bike locking techniques ("Take extra care to protect your bicycle from thieves," June 15).

But these aren't all crimes of opportunity. Agate's bike was locked to a back porch that is not visible from the street.

What can theft victims do? Some are pretty much up a creek sans paddle. One precaution that any bike owner should take, however, is to keep the bike's serial number on hand.

"Without a serial number it's very, very difficult" to track and recover a bicycle, said Somerville police spokesman Paul Upton. This, even though the department has "a couple of hundred" bikes in its possession - so many that some are stored elsewhere.

Don't get too excited. Upton said most are junk and probably abandoned. Every few years, the city holds a public auction.

Somerville has a program to register bicycles and other valuables, but the database contains mostly kids' bikes.

Some stolen bikes also turn up in online ads.

Now and then, victims get their bicycles back. Cambridge police got into the act when a man saw an ad selling something that sounded a lot like his $400 bike, which he'd reported stolen on Aug. 8. (He had the serial number.) A detective made an appointment to meet the seller in Boston, and put surveillance in place.

"It was the bike that was stolen," said Frank Pasquarello, Cambridge police spokesman. The alleged thief will appear in court in the next month.

But for most bike theft victims, resignation is the order of the day.

Agate continues to check Craigslist "like 15 times a day," but has pretty much given up hope.

"What're you gonna do?"

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