BURLINGTON — Seth Olson left his bike on Burlington’s Main Street last month after leaving a friend’s apartment. He had ridden it there when it was still daylight, but stayed until after dark, and decided to secure his bike with a cable lock and take an Uber back to his home in the New North End.
When he came back to retrieve the bicycle the next morning, it was gone.
Since he had secured the bike near the Bern Gallery, a smoke shop on Main Street, he asked to review the gallery’s security footage. Sure enough, the footage showed a person using wire cutters to cut the lock’s cable before taking off with the bike.
“This was not my first time I’d ever locked my bike at this spot overnight,” Olson said. “I’ve probably done it somewhere between five and 10 times before,” with no problems.
Olson said the Bern Gallery staff told him a number of bikes had been stolen from the same spot in the last couple of weeks. He reported the incident to the police, but has not yet been reunited with his bike.
Olson is one of hundreds of Burlington residents who are turning to social media for help. Michael Waters, a bike mechanic, created a Facebook group, BVT Stolen Bike Report and Recovery, to help Burlington residents recover their missing property. The group has over 1,000 members, doubling in size over the last week.
The Burlington Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But anecdotally, group members and a bike shop owner said they’re hearing a rise of reports in thefts in recent weeks.
“I’ve had multiple bikes stolen throughout the years,” Waters said. “But then it seemed to intensify this year, not just for me, but for people. I noticed online every day that there were multiple posts of either stolen bikes or bikes found.”
The group’s members post photos of their missing bikes, bikes they have found around town and tips on how to prevent bike theft, such as using U-locks instead of cable locks and keeping bikes inside if possible. Members also recommend that people take a photo of their bike’s serial number and put a unique sticker on the bicycle so it is easy to identify if stolen.
“Our goal is to help people deal with these things in a way that doesn’t necessarily hurt the people who are doing them, because maybe they’re already hurting more than you and I could imagine, and that’s what leads them to do something like this,” Waters said.
Waters and the other moderators of the group have discussed ways to protect themselves if they get a chance to stop a theft in progress, and Waters recently bought an extremely bright flashlight to deter potential thieves.
Bicycles are Waters’ main form of transportation, and two of his bikes have been stolen in the last couple of months.
“When my bikes have been stolen in the past — I usually have a collection of seven or 10 bikes — it’s the ones that are the best,” Waters said. “I get bummed out and then there’s a backup that I can adjust to, but that’s not every bike rider.”
Victor Prussack, coordinator of engagement for the Burlington School District, was drinking tea on his porch one morning last month when he noticed a person with a sweatshirt wrapped around their face going toward a neighbor’s house, he said. Suspicious, he contacted his neighbor, who quickly reviewed footage from their security camera. The footage showed a person with a pair of clippers walking over to his bike and then leaving, bicycle in hand.
Prussack said he saw the person ride the bike to a point about a block away. He followed and retrieved his neighbor’s bike, which was leaned up between two buildings, and then saw a truck drive by with multiple bikes in its bed, he said. Thinking the two were connected, Prussack ended up following the truck to City Hall Park. He took photos of the suspect and the truck, and the photos were posted on social media along with his story. The post drew a big response.
The moderators of the Facebook group have since made it against group policy to post photos of suspects’ faces, but old photos are still up on the public Facebook page.
Since the page’s creation last month, the group has reunited about 30 to 40 bikes with their owners, Waters said.
Dan Hock, service manager at Old Spokes Home, a bike shop and nonprofit in Burlington, said the shop has fielded an increase in bike theft reports in the last few months.
“Seasonally, we always see a rise in bike theft in the warmer months, but this year has been pretty unprecedented,” Hock said.
The shop also tries to reunite bikes with their owners. When a bike that was sold at the shop is reported found, the staff goes through the shop’s sales records to find the original buyer. Sometimes, people will drop off found bikes at Old Spokes Home, and the shop will post photos of them on social media.
“Last season, we had about eight or 10 bikes that we reunited with folks in the late summer, early fall,” Hock said. “This year, it’s probably about 10 already since the start of the busier season.”
Hock pointed out that many Burlington residents use bikes as their main form of transportation, so the issue deserves treatment as a larger issue than “petty theft.”
“If it were a vehicle, it would be treated as a felony charge,” he said. “Since it’s just a bicycle, it’s viewed as something more disposable or less important for the community.”
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