An offer to "return" my stolen bike

So this morning I got an emailed offer to “return” my stolen bike, and am pondering how to respond.

But mostly, I’m just curious about how the market for stolen bikes works and fits into people’s lives. Thus the long post.

Back in July my cargo bike was stolen. On one hand I was a bit creeped out. It was clear it was a “professional” job, not a theft of convenience, as a very heavy chain was cut, which must have required some serious bolt cutters. Ergo someone had probably scoped it out and planned it, which means my property was being monitored. :frowning:

On the other hand I wasn’t incredibly heartbroken, as I have been with other bike thefts in decades past. The bike, an old Xtracycle conversion, was pretty beat up, and though still fully functional, I hadn’t been using it too much in the past year or two because of “life events.” It was too long to store in our house (where my “good” bike stays), which is why it was easily visible to thieves.

I reported the theft to the police, bikeindex and project529 and just let it be.

Today, about 3 months after the theft, I got this email via bikeindex.

Hey I just recently bought a bike through a Friend in the homeless community for $130 because I was in dire need for a mode of transportation . And when I went to register it in my name and this article popped up. I am willing to return the property to you if you’d like. All I ask is for either Full or half reimbursement or another means of transportation please. Thanks.

Question 1: What’s happening here? Honest mistake or ransom? Either way it doesn’t make a lot of sense. As ransom, it’s not much of a scam – $130, or $65?? – but this bike has the function of things that cost >$1000. But it also doesn’t make sense that this person would be surprised to discover the bike was stolen, considering where they got it from.

Question 2: How does this whole thing happen? There’s this crafty, professional theft. Leading to a bike whose apparent street value is $65? (or perhaps less, if my correspondent is trying to make a profit). As a business proposition, this isn’t making a lot of sense. But… what’s the logic? desperation?

Question 3: How should I respond, if at all? I’m not interested in raining down “justice” on somebody. I’m just curious about how it all works.

Thanks for your insights.

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Sounds like a great deal to get your bike back. And it sounds like the person is sincerely in need of transportation, doesn’t have a lot of means, and so finds themselves looking for a bargain.
Lots of people are homeless for a spell, then work to get back on their feet, but still have friends who are unhoused.
As you said, the “ransom” is not so high, so I infer it’s a reasonable enough story to be true.
But then, I’m not one of the folks who thinks private property is so sacrosanct that bike thieves deserve capital punishment. I’ve lived at various economic strata and since I am currently employed, housed and don’t worry about hunger, I’m more likely to give a pass to those less fortunate.
Don’t know your circumstances, but if you’ve got the means to be generous (even if just giving someone the benefit of the doubt), I applaud you.


If you had a cheap bike you don’t much care about, you could offer to trade.


What would you have offered as a reward to recover the bike? If it’s equal to what their asking, that’s a vote toward doing it.

You seem to have indicated that you were willing to let the bike go. If that’s true, that’s a vote toward letting them keep it.

You might also contact Officer @DaveSanders of the recently and regrettably defunded Bicycle Theft Task Force to see what he has to say.


Thanks for the input! Like you @timolito I’ve lived at various economic strata. Right now I’m in a relatively good one and that bike wasn’t crucial to my life. I’ve also worked at a homeless shelter in the past, FWIW. I didn’t feel a need to be a hard ass in my approach to this situation.

All that being said, certain things about the message seemed a little odd the more I though about them – for example the offer to accept half of the price they had mentioned paying. I googled the name of the correspondent (not included in this posting) and found a person in my part of town with a really extensive arrest record – including some scary charges I won’t name as I’m trying to learn from this interaction, not accuse somebody in particular.

I’m not sure what my correspondent is trying to accomplish at this point – but there’s a good chance something tricky is going on. Could be they’re just trying to sell me my own bike back (the ransom theory), or it could be more elaborate. But my gut feeling is that getting involved – and especially paying the thieves – wouldn’t be a good idea for anyone.

I’ll probably just let it go – which I am lucky to be in a position to do at this point in my life. This has an added bonus – if they are being honest, they still have the bike and can use it to meet their needs.


This is an interesting situation. Thanks for sharing.

My first thought was that 3 months is a long interval to play a con for only $65 but so much with illegal activity doesn’t make sense that you can’t rule that out based on just that.

Personally, I think curiosity would get the better of me and I’d pay $130 to get the bike back just to learn more.


Was it case-hardened chain? If not, any cheap bolt cutter will snip it, even very heavy links, and that’s a common theft vector.

I agree it sounds sketchy as all get-out. Of course they knew it was probably stolen. They could even be the thief, and it took them this long to figure out that a distinctive long tail with registered serial number might not be the easiest thing to fence. Maybe the components weren’t high enough value for parting out? And yes, tweaker logic and desperation are likely factors.

I hate feeding the beast (the bike theft market space). I’d be tempted to try and set up a buy with police presence. Whether PPD has the resources to commit…I’m skeptical. And I’m skeptical whether our present justice system has anything to offer in terms of actually fixing the problem. But I also feel like doing nothing will only feed it.

I can see how considering it a donation at this point provides a little emotional salve. I hope the perp’s transportation needs are more than a way to get to the next victim and get-away.

If they get away with it, they’ll just keep doing it more to more people. Do not give in.

Seems like the worst thing to do here is engage in any transaction for the bike, @Chopwatch & @Alan_1.0. Whether the tale in the note is true or not, that would be just encouraging more bike theft… Normalizing the idea that ransoming stolen things is acceptable behavior. I won’t “feed the beast” that much.

As for setting up a sting, now that I have seen my correspondent’s arrest record (see earlier post), I’m not motivated to do it. That would de-anonymize me and get me in a big drama with this person, which could be dangerous- and even if not would be emotionally exhausting. (It’s not my first rodeo.) They’re apparently having trouble unloading the bike, perhaps because it’s unique… Maybe it will wind its way through the black market and turn up some other way.

So it’s frustrating, but the logical response for me right now is none at all. And in case the story about needing transport is completely legit, well, they’ve got a really good bike for getting groceries and hauling kids. :slight_smile:

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I’d rather feed the ransom of stolen bikes than the resale of stolen bikes.

In the corporate computer world you would pay good money to somebody to have them try to steal your property via hacking into your network.

If you buy your stolen bike you’re essentially doing the same thing. For a much lower cost than replacement you have learned a valuable lesson in security.

I once bought a sketchy bike from a sketchy person for a great price. I then proceeded to scour stolen bike listings to see if it already had an owner, knowing that I would be out the money if I had to turn it in.

I’d pay $100 to get my $1000 bike back, even though I don’t ride it much. And I’d ask for tips on how to keep it from being stolen again.

My gut reaction is this is all about how you feel about the bike – you’ve already let it give you more than $130 worth of angst.

If it were me and the bike were important to me, I’d fork over the dough. However, that appears not to be the case with you in which case I’d be tempted to let it go. I definitely wouldn’t screw around with the guy. No good will come from that.

One of the interesting things about this situation is the person knows that if they get caught with it, it could cause them trouble and you’d get it (or what’s left of it) back for free.

It seems like you really don’t need the bike or have much of an emotional connection to it, and given their arrest record and all that I would seriously advise against trying to get it back in any way. If you want, you can email them back letting them know you don’t want the bike any more, just to see how they respond. I would not be shocked if they email back saying that actually now they really need the money so could you pretty please buy the bike back.

Yeah, @banerjek, I am mostly just fascinated with the scenario right now. I’m fortunate that I am in a position where I don’t desperately need to get the bike back.

In terms of lessons learned, @JohnnyByeCarter, they’re pretty simple. Don’t leave a bike parked outside in the same place for a long time, even if the lock looks secure. From my scanning of bike theft records, it looks like a lot happen in yards, porches, detached garages, etc.

Curious if they sent you a photo or serial number to prove it’s actually your bike and not some coincidentally random generated serial number to scam you out of money? If it’s a decent working cargo bike and you don’t want it, I’d love to see a picture of it. I am 5’1" though and am currently looking at ways to haul food for “Food Not Bombs” so just curious. Thanks.

@amyvegan, it wasn’t random. They contacted me through the bikeindex “send a message to the owner” feature. However it is true that they didn’t describe the bike in particular.

If you’re looking for a economical cargo bike for a smaller person, an Xtracycle conversion of a small (like 13" frame) mountain bike might be good. Here’s an example I found on Craigslist (not my bike). Unfortunately I don’t think I will be seeing mine anytime soon.

Interesting. I had a similar situation where my bike was stolen from my apartment building. Was the persons name Jay by chance? How did this situation end up for you @LastCall3AM?

I never responded, @Crasher

Regardless of the truth of the story in the message, which (upon a bit of consideration is likely to be a nice bit of narrative marketing) I didn’t want to support the market in stolen bikes.

On top of that, The weapons charges in the person’s arrest record (they had a distinctive name, and it was not Jay) were too scary.

They haven’t contacted me again.

(Edit to add:)

If you have a similar situation perhaps this indicates that contacting the owner via a bike registry is a new sales technique in the stolen bike world?

Of course we want to believe that people are good, and that these stories of accidentally obtaining stolen bikes and owning up represent some sort of redemption. But the attractiveness of that story might say more about us than the thieves. We know logically the tale is unlikely to be true, but we want so bad to find the exception that we go for it anyway…

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Conning people is what con artists do. I’d say the best bargain is to make them give up the bike, but refund what they paid to the crook if they can provide information that leads to the arrest of the person who sold it to them. I bet that every link in chain will say bought it from “some guy”.

I’d be tempted to steal it back DIY…

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This is an interesting side effect of public-searchable bike registry databases. If you were sitting on a pile of stolen bikes (and the most prolific thieves usually are), you could just run each serial number, find the matches and hit the Contact Owner button. $130 is a lot more than most stolen bikes fetch on the street, so it’s a scam that’s worth the extra effort. They usually know they’re holding onto a multi-thousand-dollar item but it’s too hot for eBay or classified ad sites… best bet is a ransom paid by the owner. Very clever. I could see a “bike bounty hunter” phenomenon arising from this situation, and I’m not sure that’s a wholly positive development.

There are already groups on Facebook that do vigilante raids on chop shops, btw. That’s extremely sketchy, too. As much as I try not to be emotionally attached to my bikes, I’d have a hard time not going a little bananas trying to recover one. We need to keep in mind that they’re just used sporting goods, usually mass-produced, and never worth loss of life or limb.

I believe that @bikeindex is a member of this forum – wonder if they have seen a lot of the type of activity we’re speculating about (i.e. thieves’ use of the bike registry), and if they have any guidelines about it?

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