When I led the Merseyside police team that targeted thieves who were stealing bikes from TT racegoers, we slashed the number of UK-registered bikes that were taken from 17 the previous year, to just three. And we put people in prison as a result.
We didn’t do it all alone though; we needed help from other police departments, local businesses and the public. We grabbed the headlines but what about the other people? The public who help daily, right across the country?
I visited the capital to meet the guys from Stolen Motorcycle Recovery London (SMRL), who are recovering stolen bikes from the streets and returning them to their rightful owners.
Are they filling in where the police can’t? Or are they doing the local authority’s job and removing little more than scrap and burn-outs?
Are they heroes, or vigilantes?
Dave Yorke is an ex-motorcycle police sergeant from Merseyside; he led the team that slashed the number bike thefts from TT racegoers in 2018. He met the SMRL team in London and spent the night with them while they recovered bikes and scooters from the capital…
I didn’t want to fall for the hype; the press and Facebook groups could have been exaggerating the matter. Some of the videos posted online showing bike theft are of uncertain age, and if they’re not current it exaggerates a problem that was there 18 months ago but not now; motorcycle theft has dropped significantly in the last year.
But as I stepped off the train, Transport for London’s billboards were giving me warnings to take care of my mobile and other electrical items; to be aware of theft and report anything suspicious.
Wearing stab vests while working the streets of London, the guys from SMRL understandably don’t want to be identified
Meeting the SMRL team at around 4pm in a public place – then moving to their secure lock up when they were satisfied that the videographer and I were genuine – was all very dramatic, but it reflected the concern they have for their safety. We don’t want to identify them, so let’s just call them ‘the guys’ from now on…
Almost as soon as we’d met, they received reports of a Yamaha MT-07 Tracer that was parked in an out of the way location. A few checks confirmed it was listed as a stolen bike and we set off, the videographer and I following in a car while the guys lead the way in their van.
What happened over the next 10 hours was an eye-opening account of the difficulties the guys face…
It took us just over an hour to get to the location of the stolen Tracer, and as we approached I could see the ramp into a lower-level car park; the same one in the picture that had been sent to the guys via a trusted network.
The tension was mounting as we ran down the ramp to see if the Yamaha was still there, a quick scan and then… there it was, tucked out of sight from the pavement above. Still on its original registration plates and with minimal damage to only one brake disc, the steering lock and the seat mechanism, the ignition was un-touched, and the body work was in the condition you would expect of a 2017 bike.
This Yamaha Tracer was the first recovery of a long and busy night…
A tell-tale rear foot-peg was down; it had been ‘ped-pushed’ here (where a criminal rides a scooter, using one leg to push their accomplice on the stolen machine). The seat had been lifted to check for a tracker and then the bike was tucked away while the thieves waited to see if they’d missed a properly hidden device. We had probably arrived in the nick of time.
The guys called the police to say they had found it, the police phoned the victim and the victim phoned the guys. That’s how it works. Sometimes.
The victim was nearby and after giving the guys authority to remove the bike for him, we arranged to meet. Before we left though, there was a final twist; we were challenged by a resident from the flats above the car park demanding to know who we were. Once he heard the story, he told us that he had phoned the police at 10am to tell them about the bike but still at 5:30pm they hadn’t arrived.
With the bike safely loaded into the van, we set off. Amazingly, the owner was only about 200 yards away, but crucially around three corners. The guys explained to me that a lot of the bikes they get are really close to the point of theft, and they always advise victims to have a walk around the area as they might just get lucky.
I spoke to the Tracer’s owner. He didn’t want to be identified. The bike had been stolen the day before by two people and the whole incident had been captured on CCTV. Did the police know that? He’d told them via his online report, but he hadn’t spoken to anyone from the Metropolitan police until an officer called to say the guys had found his bike and to ask if they could recover it for him. We were the first people he was able to give his account to.
Account is such an anonymous word; it was really his story about when he became a victim of crime. It wasn’t just another bike theft to him – a man with a family that owns one car for his partner and child, and the bike for him. It was a deprivation of his means of travel to work to pay his and wife and child’s way through life. Public transport isn’t as quick or reliable as the bike, and it’s more expensive.
We arranged to take the Yamaha to his home about 12 miles away. A long journey across rush-hour central London. So what did the guys charge for finding his bike, liaising with the police, getting challenged by members of the public and then delivering the bike home? Absolutely nothing. As always, they simply ask for a donation. Some people help them out, grateful for all they’ve done. Some people don’t.
The Tracer was recovered to the owner’s address at the expense of the SMRL team, which relies on donations from those they help and supporters around the country
The guys have full-time jobs on top of the recovery work they do almost every night and weekend. They’ve received around £4,500 in donations from members of the public, but there’s a van to pay for with all its associated costs. They reckon to have spent around £7,500 since they started work in May 2019, and that outstanding £3,000 difference has come straight from their own pockets.
Stolen Motorcycle Recovery London might have only been in existence for a few months when I met them, but in that time they’ve recovered more than 137 stolen bikes from the streets of London, ‘our’ Tracer being No 123, which is a remarkable figure. At an average of about £4,000 per bike, that means they’ve recovered over half a million pounds worth of motorcycles. It’s also worth noting that if those bikes had been recovered by the police, a total around £5,000 would have been incurred in storage fees. Money that has to be paid by the victims to the private contractors that have bid and paid to operate the Met’s recovery system. The police aren’t profiting from it, but the victims are losing out.
So how do they do it?
Without giving too much away, the guys have a vast network of people on social media who travel across the capital daily and feed information into them, while really trusted contacts have access to a message board. Working with the private sector, SMRL also has delayed access to vehicle data; although this is slower than the police system – the Police National Computer – it is accurate and updated every morning.
There are serious frustrations. Despite help from local police officers, the guys really don’t feel as though they get enough support from the central command at the Metropolitan Police and are often left waiting a long time on a call to 101 just to talk to someone. I explained to them that even in my old force, police officers have to dial into the contact centre, or update handheld tablets once an incident has been attended as the urgency has gone. And contact centres have been modernised to reflect budget cuts. In a roundabout way, those budget cuts have left the police with too few officers having to prioritise calls and ending up unable to deal with everything. In doing so, unintentionally, the police have left groups like Stolen Motorcycle Recovery London to fill the gap.
They guys readily admitted that they can’t get to every suspected stolen bike they hear about as there is a lot of info coming in, there’s only the two of them and they don’t have enough money. You can see where this is going… does it remind you of the police’s situation maybe?
As we travelled about 50 miles back and forth across London with the guys in pursuit of hot tips, they told me of some good successes, including one which really struck a chord with me… I spent a lot of time recovering stolen foreign-registered bikes from TT racegoers and the guys have also been recovering bikes from visitors; two French-registered bikes, a BMW R1200GS and a KTM 1190 Adventure. The KTM had suffered damage in the theft, so not only did the guys recover it, but a friendly garage repaired it free of charge to enable the owner to ride the bike home.
This scooter was found at around 2am – while it’s clearly stolen and likely a ‘pool bike’ for criminal activity, the SMRL team couldn’t recover it as there are no theft reports on file
The guys are in repeated talks with the police, as well as the motorcycle industry, including security providers and insurers. They’ve had a recent high-profile success in taking down a chop-shop after locating a bike via a tracker. But they need more funding; not just from an industry that’s increasingly looking to contractors in the fight against crime, but from riders across the capital and beyond. If you’ve have a bike stolen, or support what they do, donations can be made at stolenmotorcyclerecoverylondon.org/donate
Motorcycle crime has dropped significantly, and while the police are in a constant battle of budgetary and operational restrictions, there are plenty of good people out there among the public. People like the guys, recovering bikes free of charge; garages repairing bikes free of charge; members of the public giving the info in the first place, challenging us when we tried to load the Tracer into a van.
To be fair to the Metropolitan Police and Operation Venice team, new tactics have been adopted. Operation Venice was set up to counter the alarming rate at which powered two wheelers were both being stolen and used to commit other crime across London, and one of the team’s tactics has now grabbed the headlines thanks to specially trained ‘Scorpion’ drivers who are able to carry out tactical contact on riders of stolen machines. It was a grey area, but subject to the proper checks, authorisation can now be given to knock criminals from their bikes or scooters. It’s a team effort and one that has shown the number of bike thefts in London is down 22.4% this year, a trend that is being replicated nationally.
And by using the best security you can afford, and layering it, you can help as well.
It’s true that a determined thief can – given enough time and space – defeat any security, but research proves that investing in a good chain and lock can make your bike less likely to be stolen than a car
Bennetts BikeSocial has tested the leading motorcycle security products to help you choose the best for your needs; you can read about motorcycle chains and locks here, as well as disc locks and scooter locks here.
The Metropolitan police recommends that you use a disc lock and a chain and lock, as well as a cover. A disc lock will help prevent the bike or scooter being pushed away, while a chain will have the added advantage of stopping it being picked up and put in a van. A cover, while seemingly insignificant, really does make it less likely that criminals will go to the extra effort of finding out what’s underneath and what security it has.
An alarm is worthwhile – noise can be a deterrent to the less determined thieves (so reducing risk), and they can also alert you if you live or work near where the bike is parked.
Trackers are another valuable addition; monitored trackers (where you pay a yearly subscription of around £100) see a 24/7/365 team dedicated to working directly with the police. And when an active theft is identified, the police will almost always respond immediately (subject to major incidents at the time of course).
A tracker must be properly hidden – under the seat is no good – but recovery rates are in the 80-90% range, and most machines are back with their owners within little more than an hour. Getting a bike back can also make a significant difference to the impact on your future insurance quotes. You can read Bennetts BikeSocial’s tests of the leading monitored and unmonitored trackers here.
At the very least, use a disc-lock. Buying decent motorcycle security should be considered an investment; it’s likely to last you a lifetime and while some products might reduce your insurance premium through discounting, think of it more as a way of going a long way towards avoiding the heart-ache and inconvenience of suffering a theft, not to mention the inevitable cost of increased premiums due to underwriters considering a greater risk.
Research by Bennetts motorcycle insurance showed that using even basic security reduces the risk of theft significantly, while motorcycles with the best-quality chains and locks are less likely to be stolen than the average car. You can read the data here. Locking your bike DOES make a difference.
Buy the best security you can afford and use it. Then just get on with enjoying biking.
A good quality tracker – like those from BikeTrac and Datatool – can mean the difference between getting your bike back in an hour or so, or never seeing it again
The first thing to do is call the police; you’ll be given a crime number, then if you have a monitored tracker (you’ll likely have found out about the theft from the company if you have one) pass on the number and it’ll be dealt with by the tracking team; the chances are you’ll have your machine back shortly.
You need to notify your insurance company too, but if you don’t have a tracker, the next step is to have a look around the local area. Use caution and don’t put yourself at risk in any way, but as many bikes are moved a short distance then tucked out of sight while waiting to see if a tracker’s fitted (criminals don’t want to risk their homes or workshops being discovered), there’s a chance you might spot it.
If your bike has been stolen in the London area, fill in the form on the Stolen Motorcycle Recovery London website and the team will be using its resource of 80,000 eyes and ears around the capital to spot it. If it’s found, the guys will do their level best to get it back to you. Donations to SMRL can be made here.
SMRL Stolen motorcycle form: stolenmotorcyclerecoverylondon.org
SMRL donations page: stolenmotorcyclerecoverylondon.org/donate
Best motorcycle chains and locks: Bennetts BikeSocial chains and locks test
Best scooter and disc locks: Bennetts BikeSocial scooter & disc locks test
Best motorcycle trackers: Bennetts BikeSocial trackers test