Combing the internet and streets, an unassuming cyclist brings the heat to bike thieves, one stolen bike at a time.
Editor’s note: Names were changed to protect the identities of people currently involved with undercover police investigations.
It’s just past 8:00 on a quiet Saturday night when two squad cars roar up to the public library in downtown Minneapolis. Two uniformed officers jump out, yelling commands. A plainclothes officer wearing a Punisher T-shirt breaks cover and wheels around with gun drawn.
At the center of the commotion are two men holding a bicycle. And only one of them looks surprised.
Stolen Bicycle Vigilante
Just a few hours before, “Parker” and I were drinking beer when his phone went off. He told me the sting was set for that night.
“Just got a text from the sergeant,” he said. “It’ll be tonight about 8:00. You want to come with?”
Yes, I did. Parker is a veritable stolen-bike wiz kid. He’s always trolling the net for conspicuous for-sale items. He messages people who report stolen gear to the Facebook group Twin Cities Stolen Bikes. And he’s constantly on the lookout about town, mentally cataloging who’s riding what bike.
He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of bike brands, models, and components. If a 20-year-old kid straddling a $1,200 bike offers to sell it for $80, metaphorical alarms go off. This is when he snaps to action, tracking down likely-stolen bikes and buying them back, sometimes for as little as $20.
At least that’s what he used to do.
But one Saturday last fall, he called me to say that the police wanted him to lead a sting. Parker had tracked down an expensive road bike and notified the original owner. The owner asked Parker to inform the police.
He did, and the sergeant handling the case asked Parker to arrange a meeting to buy the bike so the police could bust the perp. It was Parker’s first sting.
I watched Parker stroll through the downtown plaza at dusk, looking for his mark, while I pretended to wait for a bus. Nothing looked out of place, but Parker admitted he was tense. The police gave him guidelines, what they wanted him to do, but were vague about what would happen when the sting took place.
Parker said a young man in his 20’s walked toward him from a row of bushes with a shiny blue Klein road bike, probably worth a grand. As he describes it, the whole thing escalated swiftly.
“I texted the guy, and told him I was there. He walked up and as soon as my hands were on the handlebars, two squad cars pulled up, and some civilian-looking dude behind me pulled a gun and started yelling at the thief to get on the ground. I was terrified.”
That’s how Parker’s life as an undercover stolen bike informant began.
Undercover Stolen Bike Informant
After that encounter, Parker explained to Minneapolis’s finest how he had a number of other leads on stolen bikes and where he was finding them. Much of this was news to the MPD.
He gave them a list of websites: OfferUp, VarageSale, Selio, 5miles, and Letgo — all of which he had used to find and reclaim stolen bikes. He told them about the Twin Cities Stolen Bikes Facebook page, and others like it around the country, where cyclists create virtual crime nets to report and locate stolen bike goods.
According to Parker, this proved more work than they could spare. So they offered him an official title, stolen bike informant. It doesn’t pay, and he receives zero credit, but it’s a job he’d do anyway. Only now he has the backing of the law. He also learned he’s not alone. Since working with the police, he’s learned there are about 20 other informants that aid the cops around the state.
Before working with the MPD, Parker said he helped find and return eight stolen bicycles to their rightful owners, usually by paying a pittance for them on the street. After he was “deputized,” he now has about 50 bicycle rescues to his credit.
“I gave them information on a house where I’d seen a few stolen bikes before,” he said of his biggest bust a few months ago. “They ended up recovering around 20 bikes. Since then, things have gotten a lot quieter on the street. And that’s great.”
Bike Theft: Don’t Be a Victim
There are some things Parker can’t tell me. For one, because he’s bound by a non-disclosure agreement with the police, but also because he has more tricks up his vigilante sleeve than just perusing websites and looking for nice bikes around town. And he needs to stay a step ahead of criminals.
He also offers his services, as do entire bicycle communities, through stolen bicycle pages on Facebook. Twin Cities Stolen Bikes is just one of many around the world where cyclists can notify the group, post pictures of the bike, and communicate in real-time if somebody spots the bike.
While it’s impossible to entirely eliminate the risk of bike theft, you can take many precautions to lower the risk. Check out our complete article about how to keep your bike safe from thieves.
Small, Important Dent
According to the National Bike Registry, upwards of 1.3 million bikes are stolen each year. Parker has helped find 50.
In his work with the MPD, Parker learned about one in four bikes find their way back home, the rest either stay missing or go unclaimed. That’s about one million bikes missing in action every year.
But Parker thinks that number could improve, as long as bike owners stay attentive.
“Locking the bike properly, having the serial number, registering it, those things make all the difference,” he said.
In his experience, if someone can spread the word within 24 hours, the odds of recovery skyrocket. Call the police, post to the community pages, and notify the registries, because there are people like Parker on patrol — more than you know.