Daniel James runs a website which details bikes that have been stolen. Now, hes got a good idea and wants to see if it has legs. Would worldwide manufacturers start a new system of frame numbering?

Is the number up for bike theft?

Bike registration schemes, either by governments or businesses have failed to catch on. Governments tend to think of bike theft as a low priority. Cars are registered by governments because they are lucratively taxed. This doesn’t prevent car theft because the combination of high profit and standardised documents make forgery viable.

Third-party commercial schemes fail because they need to be paid for by the bike buyer. Faced with the choice of a Datatag or a good lock to go with their new bike, most people go for the lock.

The only party who has a strong interest in knowing a cyclists’ name and address is the person who sold them the bike, and by extension the manufacturer. Apart from the obvious advantage that someone who has already bought a bike from you and enjoyed it is likely to buy another, whether new or second-hand, imagine the good will generated by the following scenario:

A bike is stolen in the UK. The owner is naturally distressed to lose their pride and joy. Three days later, the police arrest a local fence, and find twenty bikes in his garage. The police take the bikes back to the station, and enter the clearly visible frame numbers on their reporting forms. They check the stolen bike website and note from the frame numbers that three bikes were made in the UK, two were made in the USA and the other fifteen were made in Taiwan.

A simple email is sent to each of the manufacturers, with the details of the police station and the bike in question. Some of the manufacturers have set up a special page on their own websites for this purpose. The Taiwanese and American manufacturers forward the information to their UK agent or subsiduary, who contacts the bike owner with the happy news.

A bike shop that suspected a particular bike was stolen – for example someone brings the bike into a shop to sell it and claims to have lost the certificate – could request a response from the manufacturers database, without having to bother the local police. This could also help people who believe they have bought a stolen bike inadvertently, but don’t want to get arrested.

One of the advantadges of bike manufacturers managing their own databases and certificate schemes, is that certificate forgery becomes uneconomic. A bike fence would have to keep stocks of every different kind of certificate, and the low margin on a stolen bike would mean that it was simply not worth it. In any case, the forger would have to know the name and address of the previous registered owner of the bike in order to match the manufacturers database and thus generate a new certificate.

All that would be required would be a standard specification for the certificate that manufacturers participating in the scheme would have to meet, or exceed. For example, watermarking the paper could be optional. At the very least, the certificate should have:

Bike number

Owners name and contact details

Manufacturers name and contact details

Tear-off slip for a new owner, including the above

The cost of this would be marginal. The cost of running the manufacturers’ database of customers could be easily met from their marketing budget, if they are not running some kind of customer registration scheme already. A small frame builder could probably run a simple database on the computer they use for typing their letters.

There would be a modest cost for co-ordinating the scheme internationally – running the global database of bike manufacturers for instance. I propose that a not-for-profit group should be set up to do this, which could be contributed to on a charitable basis by bike manufacturers and the various bike trade associations.

The frame number could bhave three digits which would identify the country of manufacture – maybe using the international phone dialling codes? The next three or four digit number or letters would identify the framebuilder. After that, the conventional frame number.

A cynic might suggest that bike manufacturers don’t really care if bikes get stolen. After all, it keeps a low-margin business turning over, right?

I suggest that it is clearly in manufacturers interests to combat bike theft for two reasons.

Firstly, a lot of people who have their bike stolen simply give up cycling. Another customer is lost, and it’s a lot harder to win a new customer than to retain one. Fear of bike theft might even stop someone from taking up cycling in the first place – a new bike is a large investment for a lot of people. Why bother if it will only get stolen?

Secondly, because of the perceived high risk of bike theft, especially in large cities, people spend less on their bikes than they otherwise might. Why buy the bike you really want, when you will return to find it stripped of parts? Better to ride that inferior old machine that doesn’t really fit properly – at least a thief won’t bother with it.


Good idea? Unworkable in practice? Email any thoughts to daniel@mondodesigno.com and perhaps copy them to the bulletin board too.


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