Bike theft is nothing new. Between 1985 and 1995, around 30,000 motorcycles were stolen every year. That’s 82 a day. More than three every hour.
There were large, specialist vehicle crime teams back then – in the late 1990s I visited one at a converted multi-storey car park in London to see hundreds of cars and motorcycles in various stages of forensic analysis. Teams of highly-trained officers used closely-guarded techniques to recover the original VINs that had been ground away or altered, in order to take down the gangs that were stealing and ‘ringing’ motorcycles.
Now, in 2020, ringing and cloning is less of an issue; there’s far more money to be made – and a lot easier and with less risk – by stealing a bike, stripping it down, then selling the parts on eBay.
But now most of those specialist police teams are gone – while operations come and go, successfully drawing on the specialist abilities of many different officers – there’s not the resource any more for teams solely and permanently dedicated to vehicle crime.
Vehicle theft as a whole in England and Wales (so cars, bikes, vans etc) accounted for 114,660 offences during 2018/2019. That’s one for every 1.07 police officers (123,171 at March 2019 by Home Office data). Of course, one officer wouldn’t spend 12 months only investigating a vehicle theft, but our ever-stretched police forces do have plenty of other things to deal with too…
During 2018/2019, there were 6.3 million criminal offences; that’s worth remembering when you read comments on Facebook that claim the police don’t do anything about bikes being stolen. Any crime that any person suffers is inexcusable, but as with everything in life, priorities have to be made; the theft of a motorcycle will, unsurprisingly, not always get the attention that some of the far more impactful crimes being carried out every day require.
What can the police do? If the bike’s gone, it’s gone. There’s very unlikely to be any useful forensic evidence… even less that would stand up in court; “But your honour, my client happened to be passing by and saw the garage door was open, so the little angel checked nobody inside was hurt.” And forensic examinations are expensive – that’s why DNA sprays are proving so useful in the fight against scooter-enabled crime; spot some on a machine and it’s well worth investing in forensics.
If there’s CCTV or phone footage of a bike being stolen, officers will aim to collate this evidence. And while it might seem like they’re doing nothing more than giving you a crime number to pass to your insurer, the location and circumstances of the theft will be recorded. It was phone footage and information gathered from other crimes that helped catch the gang behind the attempted theft of a Panigale from Soho in London. Between them, the three were sentenced to a total of more than 20 years.
It’s the collation of theft data that allows police to identify gangs, to work with other forces in the UK and around the world, and to – eventually, hopefully – make arrests. It might take several years, but crimes don’t get forgotten about.
Everything is stacked against the police. Funding, resource, the sheer size of criminal gangs. But to say they don’t care is simply wrong…
“It’s the police’s responsibility to stop crime, not the public’s,” says PC Paul Ennis of the West Midlands Police Force Traffic Unit. “But if everybody locked their bikes it would make a real difference.
“When we ran our ‘Lock it or lose it’ campaign in Birmingham city centre, we saw a real change – there were bikes with no locks on, the steering locks left off, sat-navs still fitted… even some with the keys left in! We’d place tickets on the bikes and the owners would come back raging, thinking they’d been prosecuted; until they opened the tickets and saw it was just advice on securing their motorcycles. After that, a lot of the machines had two and sometimes three locks on while they were parked.
“We’ll never stop motorcycle theft completely, but between the police and owners locking their bikes, we all definitely make a real dent in it.”
Bikes tend to be stolen and stripped quickly, but evidence is gathered that leads to big busts of chop shops around the country
“Police forces face competing demands from many aspects of crime, and reacting to crime that has already happened isn’t ideal,” says ex Merseyside motorcycle police sergeant Dave Yorke. “It’s much better to prevent crime in the first place, and the facts are that securing your bike makes it less likely to be stolen.
“In a partnership, everyone gets involved – the police run operations that go far deeper than the headlines on social media suggest, the industry and its MCIA Secured scheme are acting positively and we, as owners, need to take a role as well. Becoming a victim of crime can have a massive psychological and physical effect on both victims and the people around them; if you can take steps to avoid that by simply adding security to your bike then it’s got to be worthwhile.”
Many police officers – like Sgt Brian McGill – take the time to run the excellent BikeSafe courses. They’re as passionate about motorcycling as any of us
Sergeant Brian McGill at Greater Manchester Police said: “We have a team of 10 motorcyclists as part of the Safer Roads Targeting Team, who deal with a range of reports across Greater Manchester. This includes the theft of motorbikes and also those used in anti-social behaviour. Our team recovered four stolen bikes, both on and off road, just this week.
“There are a number of ways to reduce the chances of your motorbike being stolen; these include storing your bike undercover – in a garage or shed – using a lock and chain, and trying to anchor the bike to something solid. When taking your bike out, look for specific motorcycle parking and keep it visible by looking out for street lighting and CCTV.
“When recovering stolen bikes, one of the easiest identification methods is Datatag, which helps mark your bike.”
DCI Shaun White, the Metropolitan Police’s lead for Operation Venice, added: “In the Met we take stolen mopeds, motorbikes and scooters extremely seriously, and that is why we have seen such positive results, and the number of thefts reduce so significantly.”
Criminals can be pretty brazen, sometimes even boasting of their thefts on social media, but this isn’t news to the police; many officers spend time at and out of work monitoring social media channels, but this isn’t the movies – they won’t be able to instantly swoop down on the offender by pinpointing their phone’s location.
Again, it’s about evidence gathering.
But knowing that doesn’t help the victims of theft who’ve lost their bike – something they worked hard to own. They’ve got every right to be angry.
For every post we put on social media about the importance of locking your bike, you can guarantee there’ll be comments (often from those who haven’t read the article) saying ‘if they want it they’ll have it anyway’, and ‘they’ll just cut the lock with an angle grinder.’
To some extent, they’re right; if a thief does really want your bike, they will go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to get it. But the harder you make it for them, the less likely they are to bother.
Criminals don’t want to be caught (however ineffectual you consider the criminal justice system); they want quick rewards. They don’t all carry battery-powered angle grinders around, and pretty well none of them even bother trying to pick locks, so forget that YouTube video you watched.
MAG recently released data showing that 1 in every 46 bikes are stolen. That’s terrifying, but to put it into perspective know that in 2001, if you owned a Vauxhall Astra Mark II SX, there was a 1 in 9 chance of it being stolen. In fact, back then older cars without immobilisers were the most desirable, with 1 in 35 aged between 12 and 13 years old being stolen.
Using data from around 225,000 motorcycle insurance policies held by Bennetts, we’re able to look more closely at typical motorcycle thefts, as far fewer scooters are in these numbers (many of those machines are left unlocked as some owners seem them as a disposable alternatives to rail fares). Between September 2018 and August 2019, 2,080 thefts were reported, meaning 1 in 108 bikes were stolen.
But 943 people hadn’t declared any additional security. Of course, it might be that they were using a lock but didn’t tell us, though equally, that can work the other way too… what the numbers did indicate was this:
If you use any security – even a disc lock – the chances of your bike being stolen are 1 in 368.
And if you use a heavy-duty chain and lock, especially when at home, the odds of your bike being stolen fall to just 1 in 1,000. That’s fractionally less than Direct Line’s data for car thefts.
Secure your bike properly and your neighbour’s car is more likely to be stolen than your bike.
There’s little chance of the police recovering a stolen bike – back in the ’80s and ’90s, a ‘rung’ bike was more likely to be spotted. Now it’s down to Datatag marking showing up on a stolen part that’s sold online, then the legitimate purchaser being vigilant enough to spot it and check it (it’s easily done – just give Datatag a call). A tracker is the best way to get your bike back if it is taken, often within an hour or so.
If you’ve been the victim of theft, you’re likely shaking your head right now. And I’m truly sorry – there’s nothing that can be said to ease the feeling of having someone take something from you that you worked so hard for. But sadly theft does happen, and it will continue to. And the police will continue to do all they can to bring the criminals to justice, while at the same time dealing with everything from fraud to murder.
The best-placed people to help stop our bikes being stolen in the first place are us, the owners, by making our motorcycles as secure as possible – keeping them out of sight in a garage or shed, behind the house or under a cover, and by always locking them.
Not that it will be of any consolation to those who’ve had a bike stolen, but those 114,660 vehicle thefts in 2018/2019 are a fraction of the 306,950 of 2002/2003… things have been improving, but newspapers and social media don’t always reflect that.
Ultimately, locking your bike up makes you far less likely to be a victim of theft, so secure it, then get on with enjoying being a motorcyclist!