E-Bike Vigilantes Mount Up

(Bloomberg) — Folkert Salomons and John Griffoul are the manager and assistant manager at the VanMoof bike shop in San Francisco. They spend most of their days selling and fixing the Dutch brand’s electric bikes. It is, by and large, routine customer service work. But once or twice or month, sometimes more as the need arises, the two take on a more exotic and dangerous job: bike hunters. With bolt cutters and metal grinders in their backpacks, they pedal the streets of San Francisco, scanning sidewalks, racks and alleys for missing VanMoof bikes that are sending a silent alarm from the cellular chips embedded in their frames.

“It is exciting,” says Griffoul, a 31-year-old former whitewater rafting guide who has been on the job for two years. “You’re puzzling out a mystery.”

VanMoof introduced its anti-theft service in 2016. For a flat fee of $398, the company promises to find or replace a lost bike within three years of its purchase. (Its bikes start at about $2,300.) To make good on the guarantee, VanMoof employs about 25 bike hunters in the eight cities around the world where it has retail stores. In the U.S., nine hunters work out of locations in New York, Seattle and San Francisco. 

E-bike sales have surged since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2019, U.S. retailers sold $237 million worth of e-bikes, according to NPD Group, which doesn’t track direct-to-consumer brands such as VanMoof. In the first six months of this year, sales have already hit $400 million. The bikes, whose electric motors give riders a boost as they pedal, are a useful tool to reduce carbon emissions from transportation — enabling cyclists to make trips that aren’t feasible on a traditional bike. Theft, however, remains a major barrier to ownership, especially in the U.S., where secure public parking is scarce and missing bikes are typically a low priority for police.

“In the last year-and-a-half, in every city and in every state, the dial just went up to eleven and it doesn’t seem to be subsiding,” says Bryan Hance, co-founder of the non-profit registry service Bike Index, which has seen both registrations and thefts jump in the last two years. The problem is especially acute for e-bikes, which often cost thousands of dollars. It’s not uncommon, says Hance, to see new e-bike owners give up riding after their first or second theft. 

VanMoof offers its anti-theft service as a matter of product differentiation. The goal, says spokesperson Austin Durling, is both to provide customers with peace of mind and to build a reputation among would-be thieves. Salomons is convinced that they have started to take notice. However many brand-conscious thieves are deterred, VanMoofs still show up regularly in the theft reports at the Bike Index and in online marketplaces where stolen bikes are often sold. “Thieves are taking whatever they can get ahold of,” says Hance. Still, he says, VanMoof’s efforts are better than what other e-bike vendors offer.  

Every VanMoof comes equipped with a kick lock. When riders tap a button in the hub of the rear wheel, it locks in place. If the bike moves while the lock is engaged, it triggers an alarm. After two minutes, if the owner doesn’t deactivate the alarm using their smartphone or a key code, it goes silent and a cellular chip in the bike’s frame begins broadcasting its location to VanMoof. Customers also can activate the beacon from their phone.

As part of their daily duties, Salomons and Griffoul check a digital map that displays the locations of missing bikes. When a new bike appears, the first step is to contact the owner to check if it’s been stolen. If so, they ask the owner to file a police report and send them a copy. Once that’s done, the hunt can begin. The precision of the beacons varies widely depending on the strength of the signal. A bike on a rack in an open area might show a dot that indicates its location to within a few feet, while a set of wheels in the back of a U-Haul truck in an underground garage might show a circle ten city blocks wide. Based on the size of the dot and the neighborhood around it, Salomons and Griffoul consider whether to go on a hunt.

The first foray is often solo. One of them will ride to the spot on their own VanMoof. Sometimes, to be less conspicuous, they use a local rideshare bike or scooter. Hunters don’t knock on doors or enter buildings. Occasionally a security guard will let them check the rack in an apartment building’s garage, but most of the time a bike on private property is a lost cause. “Some of the time when we can’t get a bike back, it’s because it’s in an area where people are living out of encampment,” says Griffoul. “We can’t just be strolling through, looking in people’s tents or moving people’s belongings.’

VanMoof says it’s made more than 2,200 hunts worldwide since it began offering the service and recovered more than 1,500 bikes. Hunters in New York, the company says, have followed stolen bikes to Philadelphia and bikes taken from London and Amsterdam have been found as far away as Ukraine or Morocco. The success rate varies by city. In New York, where thieves don’t usually leave their loot outside, recoveries are rare. In Amsterdam, where most everybody uses street racks, they are common. In San Francisco, they happen once or twice a month. 

Riders in places without bike hunters can still purchase the anti-theft service and replacement guarantee. About half of buyers, the company says, opt for the package. Once the guarantee expires, hunters will no longer search for a bike, but any owner can use the tracking function to try to recover it themselves.

When Salomons or Griffoul find a bike unattended — and the Bluetooth transmitter inside confirms its serial number — they pounce. Flimsier locks can be snipped with a bolt cutter, but more often the job requires a power tool called an angle grinder that sends sparks flying. “It does turns heads,” says Salomons, a 29-year-old native of Amsterdam.

When they find someone with a stolen bike, hunters make a judgement call. If it’s one or two people, they usually approach and introduce themselves. They’ll show the police report and explain that they simply want to retrieve the bike. “I’ll point out that even if they did steal the bike, they’re still putting themselves at risk by having it,” says Griffoul. And, they explain, the motor, lights, and gears won’t work until the alarm is disengaged. “Usually, we’re able to persuade them,” says Griffoul.

Occasionally, hunters will get the police involved. “If it’s in the middle of fifty other stolen bikes and there’s ten dudes standing around,” says Griffoul, “there are safety considerations.” He and Salamons have a contact at the San Francisco police department who knows what they do and what kind of help they need. They don’t ask the police to investigate. “We just want them there to make sure that nobody gets any funny ideas,” says Griffoul.

Once they’ve recovered a bike, the hunters bring it back to the shop, inspect it, repair it, then call the owners. For those not found within two weeks, an employee will call offering a replacement. “It’s a huge relief for them,” says Griffoul, “because for a lot of our customers, this is how they get around.”

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