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Bike Index trending up

Published February 18, 2022
Mexican stolen bike study raises bike registration group's stature.

A version of this story ran in the February 2022 issue of BRAIN.

CHICAGO (BRAIN) — Bike Index began nearly a decade ago with a modest goal: registering bikes into a database to increase the chances of recovery if stolen. It completed its eighth year in 2021 by accomplishing something bigger.

Its investigation of a Facebook Marketplace dealer in Mexico selling stolen bikes from Colorado went viral and validated a belief in the cycling community that many stolen bikes wind up south of the border. Bike Index, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in 2013, heard from many bike shops and individual owners after the investigation was published Dec. 16 on its website.

"A ton of victims came out who never heard about us," said Bryan Hance, Bike Index's co-founder and author of the report. "They didn't know they could register their bike, didn't know what Bike Index was. They filed with their cops and figured that will take care of it. And then they read the story and they're like, 'Here's my bike in this Bike Index story! And we ask people to come to us. We want to add you to the list and put more victims around this. I spent about a week just doing that."

The other noteworthy aspect from the study, Hance said, was how the Mexican bike community rallied to out stolen-bike sellers in their country. While the subject of the investigation took his store offline while denying any bikes were stolen, Hance said the seller posted another denial on Facebook in January.

"A whole avalanche of intelligence came out of the woodwork, and we have a bunch more information about this particular guy, but also dozens of other shops. 'Go look at this guy. He's sketchy as hell, too.' I've been sticking these in Excel for now. We'll deal with them later."

Investigation leads to growth

With a staff of five, Bike Index has its hands full promoting bike registration and aiding in recoveries, so completing the investigation was a huge undertaking but paid off with a big traffic bump, Hance said. It drew publicity to its cause as it continues to grow free membership of individual bike owners and shops who are encouraged to register their inventory through a free point-of-sale platform.

In the past year, Bike Index has gained more than 100,000 individual users, 710 bike shops as of mid-January, up from 607 in 2020. Including bike shops, there were 175 new organizations — i.e. universities, municipalities — creating accounts in the past year.

"I remember the early days, when the biggest thrust of our effort was getting the word out," said Hance, who helped start Bike Index along with co-founder Seth Herr. "Explaining who we were, what we do. 'We're not trying to make a buck, please use the system.' And maybe on a good day we would get 60 bikes registered. Awesome. And now through a shop we'll get 500 bikes registered automatically through a computer and nobody lifts a finger. And it blows my mind."

Craig Dalton joined three years ago as executive director to help grow the business.

"Bryan is, in my opinion, the world's leading expert in bicycle sleuthery online, no question about that," Dalton said. "My mandate coming on board three years ago was really to just look at the business as a business. As a nonprofit, we still need to keep the lights on."

He said about half of the budget is composed of donations from people who are aware of the growing bike theft problem and from those who get their bikes. He added that a small number of larger entities in the bike industry donate as well.

"And approximately 25% of our revenue is around services we provide to universities and municipalities and law enforcement agencies," Dalton said. "We have a pretty comprehensive dashboard to view the solution (registration) and the problem (bike theft) in a very visual format. So our law enforcement partners can visualize any period of time they want. How many bikes have been registered, how many bikes have been stolen, how many have been recovered, on the platform. And that goes back to those cities and communities where we are deeply embedded. They get a bird's eye view of everything that's going on so they can incrementally support change. They can see those results, which in turn, leads them to get more funding internally when it comes to law enforcement agencies."

More industry participation needed

As an industry outsider coming in, Dalton said he was surprised more bike shops and brands hadn't embraced registering bikes.

"Because it was the type of thing where every single conversation I had with anybody, there was a lot of head nodding. 'Oh, that makes sense.' The registration systems of the '80s were broken and self-serving. The team at Bike Index did a great job building a utility for the user. We recognized bike registration was never going to be sexy; it was never going to be top of mind; it's never going to be the first thing you think about when you buy a bike. And, frankly, when we're talking to retailers, we don't want to get in the way of them selling the dream of cycling. They're there to sell a product, to develop a community that comes into their shop. We always see ourselves as an entity and functionality that sits in the background much like insurance."

Hance, who also works in cybersecurity, said theft isn't the priority in the bike industry like ransomware attacks are in others.

"Even though a lot of those industries affected by ransomware attacks have competing interests, and they're in direct competition with each other, they have formed bodies to get the knives out and go after these guys. I see this bike problem through that lens. Why hasn't this industry realized that, hey, we're directly competing, and we may have different goals, but all of these guys are trying to kill us. These bad guys are affecting our industry. It doesn't seem as though anybody has said, OK we're all going to chip in. We're all going to rally around the common cause. Let's fund some people to go do the dirty work, especially when it comes to identifying bad guys and sharing that information with each other, and publishing reports like we did about bad actors and threat actors."

Getting bike brands to take advantage of the free registration that uses the Bike Index API (Advanced Programming Interface) is a goal. Dalton said Bike Index has had some success getting some e-commerce brands onboard like The Pro's Closet, which shares Bike Index's mission.

For example, Dalton said, the Bike Index platform is built so that brands could register inventory at the manufacturing level. Bikes being boxed at the factory could be registered to the manufacturer, transferred to the retailer, and then to the consumer, all accomplished seamlessly in the background.

"And wherever it's stolen along the way, our system can then provide benefit," Dalton said. "We would love to have those conversations with bike manufacturers. We provide dashboards and metrics that they can look at to see. Trek, for example, could see how many Trek bikes are registered in one year, how many Trek bikes are stolen in one year, how many Trek bikes are recovered in one year? That's available to manufacturers on the platform."

Easy for retailers to join with a few clicks

For retailers, adding Bike Index to their Lightspeed or Ascend POS requires "several clicks and five minutes of setting and forgetting to start a relationship," Dalton said.

"What's happened a lot more in the last year is retailers are also waking up and realizing, 'We're getting hit hard,'" Hance said. "'We want records of these bikes just in case somebody rams a truck into our shop.'"

When a smash-and-grab or individual theft occurs with registered bikes, Bike Index recommends first filing a police report, but Hance and Dalton said relying exclusively on law enforcement for recovery isn't enough. That's where Bike Index Ambassadors have helped in the recovery process. These volunteers donate time every month to help find stolen bikes in their area and often are part of local Facebook groups, bike shops, or other cycling organizations.

According to Bike Index, 16,042 registered bikes were reported stolen last year, about flat with 2020, when 16,635 were stolen. In 2020, it assisted in 1,849 recoveries, roughly 11% were returned to their owners. Last year, it helped return 1,657 bikes, a little more than 10%.

The development of the ambassador program has taken on more of an importance because bike theft is generally not a priority with law enforcement, said Hance, who lives in Portland, Oregon, one of the most bike-friendly cities but also a haven for theft.

"Our town, much like every other town the last two years, there's been a lot of police disengagement," he said. "There's not enough enforcement, not enough officers. At the same time, everyone in the universe bought a bike over the last two years because of the pandemic. We used to be able to say, 'You're in Seattle? Call this cop. This guy will actually get stuff done. He's a cyclist.' A lot of those guys don't exist anymore. So now it becomes, 'If you're in this one region, there's this group of cycle repo people on Facebook and you should get a hold of them.'

But it all starts with registration, and getting more retailers to integrate it at point of sale, and manufacturers buying into it.

"So the team has done everything it could over the years to build point-of-sale integration, to build as many ways in which to make bike registration seamless," Dalton said. "But it's predicated on one of two things. One would be the end user coming to the website and registering on their own. Certainly, some will do that. But that is infinitesimal compared to the impact that a committed bicycle retailer can have.

"And two, is the impact bicycle manufacturers can have if they address this from the top down within their supply chains."

And, yes, Bike Index plans to do more deep-dive investigations like the one in Mexico.

If you are a retailer or manufacturer, Bike Index is looking to connect with you.

Topics associated with this article: From the Magazine

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