We used GPS to track stolen bikes around the city; Where did they end up?

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DALLAS -- Bike theft is a big business.

Night or day, locked up or not, crooks steal bikes out of vehicles by sneaking into garages or by swiping them off front porches.

Occasionally, thieves are caught. It’s rare, even with video evidence from surveillance cameras, police say.

Victims who have lost bicycles – some worth thousands of dollars – are left helpless.

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“It's transportation for me,” said Megan McGowan, who has had two bicycles stolen. “There's a lot of people who can't drive and for them, a bicycle means freedom.”
 
Surveillance cameras got a shot of one of McGowan’s thieves. Both times she filed police reports, but no arrests were ever made. Her bikes remain missing.

“It really makes me mad that I do what I'm supposed to -- keep track of my serial numbers, report it,” she said. “Officers come out, not once but twice, in two different cases, and both times nothing happens. It just doesn't seem like anybody really cares.”

Stories like McGowan’s are not uncommon. Last year, thieves stole two bikes a day in Dallas. Some thefts are never reported to police. Only one percent of stolen bikes are recovered, according to records reviewed by WFAA.

Mary Fehler, who heads the Dallas Bicycle Coalition, says many cyclists have just quit reporting thefts.

“Because they don't think police are going to do anything. Is that fair? No," Fehler said. 

“We are doing all we can,” said Sgt. James Johnson with Dallas Police Department's Operational Intelligence Unit. “They can grab that bike and be gone in less than three seconds. There’s no way to track it.”

With that in mind, WFAA hit the road on a mission. Where do bikes go when they’re stolen?

WFAA bought some bikes from a local pawn shop and from a website called OfferUp, which posts bikes for sale. We installed GPS tracking devices and set them out near downtown and Deep Ellum, where police say many thefts occur. Some bikes were locked up, others left unsecured to see how long they would last.

Most were within view of nearby surveillance cameras.

Only 12 minutes passed before someone rode off with one of our unsecured bikes in Deep Ellum. We picked up the GPS signal, which showed the bicycle traveled through Southeast Dallas to an apartment complex.

We then showed neighbors the surveillance images. All denied taking the bike.

We soon retrieved the bike and set it out again. This time with a bike lock.

A couple of hours later, surveillance video shows a different thief on video taking something out of his pocket. Within seconds, the lock is cut.

Another bicycle left unsecured near Canton and Crowdus also disappeared. Cameras caught a woman walking up and riding off with it. She took it to a homeless housing complex south of downtown Dallas, where it stayed all night.

That morning, a GPS alert signaled the bike was on the move again. It went through downtown, to the West End, where someone took it onto a DART train.

They got off near the VA hospital on South Lancaster Road. Later, we found someone riding the bike in the area and eventually, after it changed hands again, we tracked it to its new owner.

We showed him how we had tracked the bike’s path over the past 12 hours.

He said he bought it from a man in the neighborhood for $20. The bike, a Trek, sells for about 10 times that amount.

“I asked him several times, ‘Where'd you get the bike?’” said the bike's new owner, known in the neighborhood as “Big J.”

WFAA showed him how we’d tracked the bike’s journey over the past day. Then, we bought the bike back.

In this case, the story ends with a recovery. It was all thanks to technology. Without it, bikes are easy pickings for thieves.

Police say they are working to remove bike thieves from the streets with a bait bike program of their own. And they offer this warning.

“Be careful what bike you pick because it might be ours,” Sgt. Johnson said.

Email investigates@wfaa.com

TOP WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR BIKE

  • RECORD IT. Record your serial number.
  • PHOTOGRAPH IT. Take photos of your bike and any details that distinguish it, such as aftermarket additions
  • REGISTER IT. Find out if your city has a municipal bicycle registry. If so, register your bike.
  • INVEST IN IT. Buy the biggest, heaviest, most expensive lock you can afford
  • INSURE IT. Many policies cover thefts of personal items, including thefts that happen outside your home. If you have homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, consider insuring your bike.
  • TRACK IT. Consider purchasing a higher-tech solution like a GPS tracking device. There are several on the market. But beware: Most require you buy the device plus a monthly tracking subscription.
  • STORE IT. Store your bike indoors, especially at night.

WHAT TO DO IF YOUR BIKE GETS STOLEN

  • Report it to police immediately. We’ll be honest, many stolen bikes are never recovered but if the cops don’t know your bike is stolen or have a serial number they can’t get it back to you. Pawn shops are required to give police serial numbers of the merchandise the pawn purchases. Most police departments have a “pawn shop squad.” They cross reference pawn shop serial numbers with stolen merchandise serial numbers.
  • Consider checking with local pawn shops yourself to find out if your serial number matches any recent purchases.
  • Keep an eye on online garage sale sites.