Sep. 2, 2014 at 7:42 AM ET
Bicycles are more popular than ever, and they can cost up to $5,000 and more. Many people ride them to work, lock them up outside their building... and return to find them gone.
According to the FBI, nearly 200,000 bikes are stolen every year — an average of more than 500 bikes per day. Police departments across the country are reporting a surge in bike theft. Bandits can swipe bikes in seconds, snatching them out of driveways and the backs of cars, even chopping down trees to get at them. And most victims never get their bikes back as the thieves pedal off to a big payday on the bike black market.
"It doesn't matter where you live: big cities, small towns, college campuses," said Jason Cecchitini of BaitBike.com, which works with law enforcement to catch bike thieves red-handed. "Everybody's getting their bicycle stolen." In Massachusetts, for example, more than 4,500 bicycle thefts are reported each year (unreported thefts would likely elevate the number much higher), and bike theft increased an average of 3.1 percent per year from 2007 to 2011, according to the FBI.
As an experiment, the Rossen Reports team set up a hidden camera test with a $1,500 Marin mountain bike, locking it up to a tree in San Francisco with a GPS tracking device hidden inside the seat. The team watched from a van with tinted windows down the street to see what would happen.
After only two hours, two men zeroed in on the bike. While one apparently acted as lookout, the other went to work with a cutting tool, ripping through the lock within seconds. He raced from the scene, but his accomplice stuck around. Jeff Rossen caught up with him down the street and identified himself as an NBC News correspondent.
"Get that camera out of my face dude!" the man demanded, and denied involvement in the theft of the bicycle. Even when he was shown the hidden camera footage, he said, "I was not involved in stealing this bike. So what, I was talking to him, so what."
Using the GPS device, the Rossen team tracked the bike's signal. Originally the team thought that the thief was just going to ride away on the bike and sell it, but the signal indicated a more sophisticated operation: the bike had been put in the back of a car which was proceeding along a highway.
The Rossen team followed the GPS signal to a residential neighborhood. Rossen knocked on the door of the house the signal indicated and identified himself to a woman who answered the door. "We had a bike stolen today and we've tracked it back to this home," Rossen said.
"I don't know about it," the woman said.
"Does anyone else live here?" Rossen asked. "Can we take a look for our bike?"
Admitted into the home, the Rossen team tracked the GPS signal to the backyard and found the bike under a mattress in a shed. The wheels had already been taken off, indicating that the thieves were already about to sell the bike for parts on the black market.
Even with the evidence in their hands, the Rossen team still got no explanation from the homeowners.
If you want a GPS tracker for your bike, they cost about $150. If you don't want to spend that kind of money, experts say a U-bolt lock is the next best thing: It's much harder for thieves to cut.
Another tip: Make sure to lock your bike through the wheel and the frame — otherwise you might end up with just a bike frame. Believe it or not, bike wheels are a hot commodity too.