Each year, an average of 325 bicycles are stolen in the city.
Most will never be returned to their owners because they haven’t done one thing – keep a copy of the bike’s serial number.
“Getting that serial number is critical,” Bellingham police Sgt. Keith Johnson said.
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When police find bicycles, they run the serial numbers through state and national databases – the Washington Criminal Information Center and the National Criminal Information Center – to find out whether owners have reported them stolen. Serial numbers also prove ownership.
“I can’t tell you how any times we’ve found bikes that we suspect are stolen and we can’t make an arrest because we don’t know for sure they’re stolen,” Johnson said. “Even if we recover the bike, we can’t reconnect it with its owner so it sits in our property room for a certain amount of time and then it gets auctioned off.”
Unclaimed bicycles also are donated to nonprofits.
There’s also a local database police will check, time permitting, for possible matches based on bike brand or model and other details, in cases where the victim doesn’t have a serial number.
The number of bikes stolen in Bellingham annually varies, with 271 reported last year. The highest number of thefts within the past five years was in 2014, when 433 were stolen.
Downtown, Sehome and Roosevelt neighborhoods had the highest number of reported thefts for the five years ending in 2016.
Stolen bikes are traded for drugs, or used by thieves to get around, police said. They’re posted online for sale by people trying to make a quick buck; police are tipped off when a bike valued at $1,000 is listed for $200, for example.
Police said thieves modify the bikes, either by painting the frame or changing the components, so they’re not easily recognizable. They also grind away the serial number to hide that the bicycles had been stolen.
Frustrated owners have taken to social media to complain about chop shops they see in plain view and to ask the community of cyclists to be on the lookout for their stolen bikes.
That’s what Tim Eaton did after his bike, which was locked, was stolen between 8:30 and 9 p.m. on July 19 from the back of Northwest Pathology on Meridian Street, where he works.
Eaton reported the theft to police, gave the serial number and provided details such as stickers, accessories, model and color. They told him chances of recovery were slim.
So he posted about it on Facebook, in the group Bellingham’s Stolen Bikes and Gear.
“I know cyclists look out for each other and I had hoped one of them might spot my bike some day and perhaps notify me,” Eaton said.
He also cruised by areas with known chop shops.
“They would have a dozen bikes in all different forms of dismemberment but none of them were mine,” Eaton said.
A couple of weeks after he reported it stolen, Eaton was surprised when police told him his bike had been recovered from a crime scene. It was damaged and would cost a few hundred dollars to fix, Eaton said.
Johnson, who supervises the Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team and Outreach, said Bellingham Police will join a program called 529 Garage – an online bike registry that aims to thwart online sales of stolen bikes – to encourage people to register their bikes and to give police easy access to owner information.
The state and national databases police now use doesn’t allow them to access ownership information, including how to contact the owner, if a bike hasn’t been reported stolen.
The 529 Garage program would allow police to use its app to pull up a picture of the bicycle and its owner, along with the serial number and contact information for the owner, regardless of whether it’s been reported stolen.
“I think we could make more arrests and recover more bikes with that tool for sure, with the ultimate goal being deterring future bike theft,” Johnson said.
Here’s what Johnson said people should do to prevent bike theft or increase the chances of your stolen bike being returned to you:
▪ Know your bicycle’s serial number. Write it down or take a photo of it for your records. It’s a key piece of information to get your bicycle back.
▪ Go a step further by registering it online at 529 Garage. Registration is free, or people can buy a hard-to-remove decal for $10. Bellingham police also are planning registration events in the coming months.
▪ Don’t leave your bike unlocked on a balcony, in a common area or the back of your truck. If you’re going to just run into the store for a minute, it might not be there when you get back.
▪ Lock your bicycle to something solid. A U-bolt bike lock is better than a cable lock, which is easy to dismantle with bolt cutters.
Look for your stuff
Because Bellingham Police don’t have enough people to track stolen items being sold online, they recommend people search the following websites for their stuff:
▪ dw-search.com, which allows searches on multiple sites at once.
If you find your property, police want you call 911, provide your case number and ask to speak with an officer.
“You’re going to recognize your property better than we will on a website,” Bellingham police Sgt. Keith Johnson said.