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Lost and found--stealing back your bike, the Craigslist way

After waiting for an hour and a half at a Logan Square intersection, the police still hadn't shown up--so Shirley Tang, a 24-year-old Chicago Public Schools art teacher living in Ukrainian Village--decided to do it herself.

Tang called the guy's number, told him she was nearby, and then she and her boyfriend waited.

"The whole time I was panicking, thinking it was gone," Tang said.

But 15 minutes later, he walked up with the bike. It had a green frame, straight handlebars with worn rubber grips and thin black wheels with white rims. And it was Tang's Bianchi bike--and she had Craigslist to thank for her reunion with her wheels.

Niya Beraha, 22, of Pilsen, whose bike (also a Bianchi) was stolen from her friend's back porch a few days after Tang retrieved hers, also found her bike through a Craigslist ad. Then, she went to a police station and enlisted the help of several officers. They drove her to a gas station to meet the sellers--two teenagers, who brought the bike over to her while their father waited in the car. The officers repossessed the bike from the teenagers and returned it to Beraha, but the police couldn't prove they had stolen it, so they let them go.

Tang and Beraha are far from alone--according to a 2010 estimate from the Chicago Police Department, more than 5,000 bikes are stolen in Chicago every year. However, according to Chicago Stolen Bike Registry founder Howard Kaplan, 5,000 a year is a "gross underestimate." He said he'd guess the true number of bikes stolen per year is at least twice that, possibly closer to 15,000 a year.

"I have no doubt there are many summer days on which over 100 bikes are stolen in Chicago--even if you average 40 a day over 365 days you get well over 10,000," Kaplan said.

In August alone, when Tang and Beraha's bikes were stolen, Chicago Stolen Bike Registry shows that 159 bikes were reported missing--but this number only reflects the number of bikes that were registered stolen with the website. In September, according to the registry, 104 bikes had been reported stolen as of Sept. 25.

Many of those bikes might end up on Craigslist like Tang and Beraha's bikes.

Tang hadn't seen her bike since the week before, when it was stolen from her apartment's front yard while she was at work. It had been locked with a U-lock in its usual spot, attached to a wrought-iron fence, with a cable lock securing her front tire. Cutting through a U-lock must have been too hard, so the thief cut through the fence and attached gate instead.

Tang filed a police report about her bike and asked about it at a North Side shop that sometimes unknowingly stocks stolen bikes, Nearly New, but it had not been seen.

"I was kind of at that hopeless point, like 'I know it's not coming back,' " she said.

Tang was planning to visit the Swap-o-Rama flea market--a lot of bikes stolen in the city are sold there-- when she posted a "stolen bike" ad on Craigslist with a picture of her bike. Tang got three responses with a link to a Craigslist ad listing her bike for sale. The ad said the bike was a 2011 Fuji fixed-gear bike (it's a 1987 Bianchi world sport) and listed it for $350. Tang responded to the ad, arranged to see the bike and called the police.

The 911 operator told her to call again an hour before she met the seller so the police could help her approach him and take back her bike. She and her boyfriend drove to the intersection the seller had suggested, called the police and waited. They called a couple more times. They tried flagging down some passing police cars, but none stopped. The longer they waited, the more nervous she felt. She knew that if they didn't act soon, someone else would buy the bike first. So finally she called the seller and told him to meet them by the gas station.

Once the seller arrived, Tang said she played dumb and asked a lot of questions--"Can you lower the seat?" "What kind of rims are those? "What's the frame size?" He answered her questions confidently, with a bunch of made-up answers, she said.

"I built that bike. I know exactly what's going on with that bike," Tang said. "All the little quirks. He lied about everything."

At that point, she only had one more question for him: "Can I try it out?"

He handed it over. Once Tang's hands were safely on the bike, she took a step back.

"I said, 'Dude, this is my bike.' He said, 'That's bullshit.' I just rode away. It's mine, I don't care. I don't have to prove it to him that it's mine."

"I was screaming up a storm. God knows what I was yelling at that point."

Her boyfriend held the guy back while she pedaled down the street.

Tang was lucky that she was able to get her bike back the way she did--especially since her bike wasn't registered in the city and she didn't have the serial number.

Charlie Short of the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Bicycle Ambassadors said bike registration--not a chance Craigslist encounter--is the best way to increase your chances of seeing your stolen bike again. According to the most recent statistics from the National Bike Registry, more than 1 million bikes are stolen each year in the U.S., and while more than 48 percent of these bikes are recovered by police, less than 5 percent are returned to their owners because they aren't registered and police have no way to match the recovered bikes to their owners. Chicago bike owners can register their bikes online or in person at their district's police department.

Short also said that if it's possible, it's best to get police support once you've located your stolen bike like Beraha did. In Beraha's stolen-bike case, it might have been a good move. When police officers looked up the teen sellers' father’s information at the station, they found his name in their system with past charges for auto theft, an expired drivers’ license, two auto thefts, domestic violence and rape.

"You never know what's going to happen," Beraha said. "The last thing you want to have is an altercation with a gangbanger with a rap sheet."

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