Need to know: Motorcycle trackers

John Milbank, BikeSocial Consumer Editor
By John Milbank
BikingMilbank BikeSocial Consumer Editor, John owns a KTM 1050 Adventure. He's as happy tinkering in the workshop as he is on twisty, bumpy backroads, and loves every bike ever built (except one). He's bought three CBR600s, two Ducati Monsters, several winter hacks, three off-roaders, a supermoto pit bike, a Honda Vision 50 and built his own custom XSR700. 

Shady fella eyes up the BikeSocial GSXS750

75 bikes and scooters are stolen each day. In 2016, 27,213 powered two wheelers (PTWs) were taken from their rightful owners in the UK. Only two out of five were recovered.

Ask some motorcyclists if they’ve considered fitting a tracking device, and they’ll tell you that they wouldn’t want their bike back after some thieving low-life has had it. I used to think the same way, but after owning my current bike for so long, and setting it up and modifying it to suit me so well, I’m not so sure.

Despite the videos of brazen thieves threatening bystanders while cutting locks with angle-grinders, this high-profile theft is still very much in the minority. Most of the theft is of scooters from central London, and more thieves would still prefer a quieter life, with less risk of a more serious custodial sentence for threats to life.

Shockingly, seven out of ten owners still leave their PTWs unlocked in city bike parks. For many, they simply don’t realise that a lock is so important. Some simply don’t care – the insurance will cover it after all, and it’s still far cheaper to ride a scooter into London than pay the train and parking fees.

Unfortunately, some underwriters are now refusing to quote for policies in London, and as claims rise, everyone’s prices go up. The increased cost to an R1200GS owner, who keeps their machine securely locked in their Derbyshire garage may seem unfair, but inevitably, what happens in The City will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the country.

Recovering a stolen motorcycle doesn’t just potentially limit the cost of future premiums, it could help the police catch the culprits, and ultimately the organised crime bosses. Stolen bikes are stripped in UK workshops, couriered in one piece across borders, of even disassembled in the back of large trucks immediately after being snatched. A tracker has the potential to nail these crooks.

As we write this, a large proportion of stolen vehicles are still taken, then left for a day or so to see if they’re located by their rightful owners. If they are, the thieves have avoided being caught out by a tracking device, but you’ve got your bike back.

A stolen car

Found in a Lincolnshire field, the owner of this car was told by police that it had likely been hidden while the thieves ensured there was no tracker fitted. Fortunately, the farmer spotted it…

 

Tracker options

Trackers are available as a subscription-based package, or self-monitored. While a cheap system can be purchased from eBay, and might help you find your bike if it’s been dumped, the police will be less likely to be able to help you if needs be.

A managed system typically has 24/7 monitoring in place, with a team ready to track your bike. Some companies will deploy staff to locate and assist in the recovery, but keep in mind that they have no rights to enter private property. However, the company should have ties with the police, who – resources permitting – can attend the scene, and potentially gain access (though this could depend on the circumstances, and whether a warrant is deemed necessary).

The majority of subscription-based trackers will notify HQ the moment your bike is moved without the keys in the ignition. From then, the company will contact you, check that it’s not in your possession (for instance, if you forgot to deactivate it on a ferry), then immediately begin tracking. Some companies boast recovery rates as high as 90%, most bikes being reclaimed within just two hours.

While it’s also a rare crime, bike jacking should be considered – many managed tracking systems can also monitor a bike from the moment you contact the call centre, which could see you reunited with your machine, and the violent criminals apprehended.

Biketrack

 

The technology

While often referred to as ‘GPS trackers’, there are various types of technology fitted to the products, each with their own advantages…

Cellular: The unit has an inbuilt SIM card, and sends and receives texts or data to and from a server using the Global Systems Mobile communications network (GSM) – the same as your mobile phone. This can also be used to triangulate an approximate position.

GPS: Using satellites, a tracker with Global Position System technology can pin-point its location to within three to four meters, though it’s more easily blocked than GSM. The cellular network is used to transmit the location to base.

RF Beacon: Radio Frequency tracking is only effective up to around a mile or so at best, depending on terrain. Where fitted to a motorcycle tracker, it will generally come into use after the monitoring staff have triangulated the position using GSM. An operative then ‘homes’ in on the beacon using a radio receiver. While short range, this is the most accurate location method, and is not blocked by bikes hidden inside shipping containers or similar.

Without a warrant, police cannot legally enter a private property without the consent of the owner, or unless the owner of the property has been arrested. An RF beacon allows the tracking company to guarantee a stolen item is inside a property, making it far easier for officers to obtain a warrant. Gaining a warrant is not a case making a call – a magistrate must be found, who will then give the piece of paper that is a warrant, which will then be needed by the officer.

Support team: Having an operative that can be deployed in the event of a theft means that RF beacons can be tracked, but also that they can monitor a stolen bike’s location until the police are able to attend. As resources become increasingly stretched, this is a major selling point.

Datatool Track King motorcycle tracking system

 

Approval

Some trackers are Thatcham approved, which sets criteria for features, as well as promising reliable performance, shock protection and resistance to water / dust ingress. Approved products often qualify for insurance discounts, though speak to your insurer about any device fitted, as it may see your premium reduced. Here are the Thatcham categories in full, which apply to all vehicles:

Thatcham Category 1: Electronic Alarm and Immobiliser

These alarms must have perimeter detection, ignition detection, passenger compartment movement detection (in cars), living compartment movement detection (leisure vehicles), inclination detection (motorcycles), and an audible warning with battery back-up power supply.

The immobiliser has to be passively set, and isolate a minimum of two operating circuits or systems.

Thatcham Category 2: Electronic Immobiliser

A Cat 2 device is an immobiliser without alarm, and must be passively set, isolating at least two operating circuits or systems.

Thatcham Category 2-1: Electronic Alarm upgrade

Designed for vehicles that already have a Cat 2 immobiliser, this is a popular addition for many motorcycles, the alarm featuring perimeter detection, ignition detection, passenger compartment movement detection (in cars), living compartment movement detection (camper vans etc), inclination detection (on motorcycles), and an audible warning with battery back-up power supply.

Thatcham Category 3: Mechanical Immobiliser

This device needs to be easy to set and unset, isolating a minimum of one operating system, and be permanently or temporarily installed.

Thatcham Category 4: Wheel Locking Devices

These devices need to be resistant to attack, and have a secure key replacement procedure.

Thatcham Category 5: Stolen Vehicle Tracking and Recovery

A Cat 5 tracker requires a back-up battery power supply, bi-directional communication with base, street level mapping, an agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), storage for positional data, ignition off theft alert (typical theft) and ignition on theft alert (identification of driver with a key), engine crank inhibition, a secure operating centre meeting National Security Inspectorate requirements, and a level one police response. Level one is the highest priority; level two is ‘desirable but dependant on resources’, while level three needs no police response, but key-holder attendance is required.

Thatcham Category 6: Stolen Vehicle Tracking

This rating means the device will have a back-up battery power supply, bi-directional communication, street level mapping, a police or licensed security agreement, storage for positional data, and ignition off theft alert.

Thatcham Category 7: Stolen Vehicle Location

These devices require a back-up battery power supply, bi-directional communication, storage for positional data, RF location, and a law enforcement agency agreement.

 

Where to hide it

Unlike in cars and vans, there aren’t many places to hide a tracker. It’s important that the unit isn’t obvious, and many companies won’t allow us to show their product (hence the box pictures) – it makes sense to not promote what the thieves should be looking for (though the most professional will of course be all too aware).

Trackers mustn’t be too smothered with metal, so beneath a fuel tank can restrict the performance of their GPS/cellular transmitters, though some systems use an ‘extended’ GPS antenna for increased accuracy in tricky environments.

Trackers wired into the bike generally need a live and neutral to the battery, along with a switched feed from the ignition, so the unit knows when the key is being used. Most will have a back-up battery, should the wiring be disconnected, and in this case, many trackers will go into alert mode by default.

Most subscription-based trackers must be fitted by an approved installer, to guarantee their effectiveness – the supplier will be able to advise you of one in your area. Insurance discounts sometimes apply, but bear in mind that a professionally-fitted device will have a certificate of installation, which must be supplied in the event of a claim.

 

Motorcycle tracker signal jammer

This Russian military-derived equipment is used to steal cars and jam signals to bikes…

 

Limitations

Potentially, thieves can ‘listen’ for a tracker talking to base – in the same way that they might knock a bike to find out if it has an alarm, they could use a device to detect the cellular communication of a tracker. This data stream can also be jammed with the right technology, though just as many thieves will not want to progress to violent crime, they’ll also know that carrying the tools is ‘going equipped’, making prosecution much easier.

Trackers can also be blocked by sealed metal containers, though many will still work in vans. Accurate and immediate tracking can at least trace the vehicle’s movements to the last visible position, which could be enough, be it the location of the entrance, or a starting point for RF detection.

There are claims that a taser could disable a tracker wired into bike, the crook ‘zapping’ the loom to fry it. Most manufacturers say this shouldn’t work, and besides fuse protection being present in the devices and bikes, many thieves will be less willing to do this, as the multiple ECUs will be destroyed, limiting the motorcycle’s resale value.

Finally, while you and the tracking company might know where the bike is, it’s possible that the police won’t have the resources to attend before it moves on – a support team can be a real help here.

It needs to be remembered that there are a lot of bikes out there, and the thieves have plenty of choice – despite what social media could lead you to believe, the majority of crooks do care about getting caught, so will most likely be cautious. A tracker most certainly has real potential in helping you retrieve a bike you’ve put a lot of work into, and may have had many very memorable rides with…

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