Last Wednesday Vancouver bartender Kayla Smith had her $1,100 bike stolen. She figured it was gone forever, but the next day a friend spotted it for sale on Craigslist.
So Smith contacted the seller, arranged a meeting to buy the bike, asked to take it for a test ride and then simply rode away.
After she posted her story on Facebook, the story went viral, with many people posting comments suggesting that people have to take such matters into their own hands because police would be too busy to help with such a low priority crime.
Bike mechanic Jesse Cooper says cyclists look out for each other's bikes because most of them know what it's like to have one stolen, and have developed their own system to mobilize their own personal search.
"Blast the internet right away, file a police report, put posters up, ask friends who are searching social media or see the stolen bike on the street to lock the bike with your own lock."
Social media expert Richard Smith says police just don't have the resources to match the power of social media.
"Vigilante justice seems to crystallize in bikes in our time...the chances you could be right on top of Craigslist watching every posting of a bike somewhat like yours are very high."
Police willing to step in
Despite the doubts expressed online, Vancouver police Const. Brian Montague is adamant police can and will facilitate a bike recovery if they're called to help.
"Yes we are busy, we go to about 600 calls every day, but we have the ability and the resources available to help victims of crime, and that's what we're there for."
Montague says officers have, in the past, helped arrange a take-back and returned the property back to the rightful owners immediately.
"If we help facilitate a meeting when a victim finds their property for sale on a website, we would give that property back right away. We'd take some information from it, probably take a photographs of it, but we'd give it back to the owner right away. There's no need for us to keep it."
But Montague says it can be dangerous to act on your own.
"You don't know who you're meeting when you make these arrangements, you don't know how desperate these people are, and having the police involved reduces that risk greatly."
Still police admit more than a thousand bikes are stolen in the city every year, and not that many find their way home.
"I don't have exact numbers, but it would be a small percentage," he said.
Montague says it's a wide variety of people who steal bikes. Some do it for quick drug money. Others are part of larger operations, but for the most part, most prolific bike thieves are specialists.
Police don't have a top ten list of bike thieves, like they do for car thieves, but there is a small group of individuals they know are chronic bike thieves who are monitored by the VPD's chronic offenders unit. If they are arrested, police try to keep them in custody longer by charging them with more serious offences, said Montague.
Vancouver police do operate a bait bike program, similar to the successful bait car program, that is designed to catch bike thieves by hiding GPS tracking devices inside the bikes. Police also advise recording the serial number of your bike so you can positively identify it.
For her part, Smith says she's happy with the way things turned out, but she did learn one lesson.
"Bring your bike inside. If you worked hard for it, and you spent good money on it and it's your pride and joy, take care of it."