Campus a ‘shopping mall’ for bike thieves

by Tom Lopez

When Christa Fandrich arrived at the University last fall, she was aware of campus lore surrounding bike thefts. However, since none of her friends had ever had their bikes stolen, she thought hers would be safe on the rack outside Frontier Hall with a cable lock.
It wasn’t.
“I thought (the stories) were exaggerated,” she said. “But obviously, they weren’t.”
Not only was the bike gone, but the lock also disappeared.
“I walked by (the bicycle rack) one day, and (the bike) was gone. It just totally disappeared,” she said.
Fandrich, a College of Liberal Arts freshman, said she plans to buy a new bike, but will keep it in her room.
“No matter what kind of lock it is, if they want your bike, they’re going to get it,” she said.
Bike thefts on campus have risen since the early 1990s, when between 200 and 230 were reported to police annually.
Although aggressive policing and the implementation of a bike patrol brought reported thefts down last year, they still now average between 250 and 275 thefts per year, said Detective Larry Anderson of the University Police Department.
“It’s definitely increasing,” he said.
An increase in the cost of bicycles might be part of the reason thefts have increased in recent years. “That’s the number that’s really getting higher,” he said.
Anderson said someone recently reported having an $1,100 bike stolen from Ford Hall.
Ironically, this rise in thefts is coinciding with many advances in the efficacy of bike locks, said Rob Dehoff, owner of Dinkytown Bike and Skate.
The real problem, then, is not the vulnerability of the locks but the owners’ failures to secure their bikes, Dehoff said.
“More than half the time people left their bikes unattended for just a minute,” he said. “They walked away, and just a minute later it was gone. That’s the key — always lock your bike no matter what.”
Both Dehoff and University Police agree, however, that although no locks are impenetrable, some are better than others.
University Police Sgt. Mike Listul said the best locks are the Kryptonite brand and U-bolt locks. However, he said even they don’t offer complete security from theft.
“If someone wants the bike badly enough, they’re going to get it,” Listul said.
Dehoff concedes that there are methods for penetrating even U-bolt locks. One technique involves pouring Freon, a super-freezing agent, into the locking mechanism. This makes it brittle and easy to break open.
Another method is less scientific: prying it open by wedging a car jack into the lock. Cable locks, the type that Fandrich secured her bike with, can be cut with common bolt cutters.
“People carry them in guitar cases,” Dehoff said. “It’s a 30-second job.”
However, bike lock manufacturers are improving to meet the competition, Dehoff said. Among the new models available are braided locks, which are strong and invulnerable to car jacks. Some companies are so confident in their product that they insure their products.
“You can collect money if you can prove the lock was broken,” Dehoff said.
Dehoff added that he has several high-quality bikes that he locks up on campus. He said students should lock their bikes in well-lit areas with other bikes and not leave them outside overnight.
“If you have a good lock and remember to lock it up each time, you should be all right,” he said.
However, Listul said the theft problem is bad enough that he recommends that students don’t keep very expensive bikes locked on campus.
“Those are, of course, the first to go,” he said.
Listul added that the best advice he can give to students with bikes is to get them licensed and keep a copy of the serial number. Most students don’t, even though it is required by a city statute, Listul said.
“I think most students are aware of the statute,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re aware of how important it is until their bikes are stolen.”
“If they don’t have their bikes licensed, they’re not going to see their bikes again.”
Dehoff agreed that licensing is a good idea. He said a friend had his bike stolen, but because it was licensed, when he reported it stolen he found out that the police had it in their possession.
Such cases however, tend to be the exception, he said. The chance that bike theft victims will get their bikes back is “extremely small.”
Dehoff, who believes the theft of bike parts is a bigger problem than theft of the bikes themselves, advises owners to chain the wheels to the body of the bike and carry the seat with them. They can also remove the quick-releases on these parts and replace them with bolts, a job that his store does for about $30.
No matter what security measures are taken, Anderson said, thieves will continue to be attracted to the heavy concentration of bikes on campus.
“It ends up being a lot like a mall or shopping center for bike thieves, because they have so many to choose from.”