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Does anyone have any evidence that uglyfying does or does not work as a theft deterrent? It doesn't have to be scientific: even anecdotal evidence helps (and maybe well-founded opinions)?

This question was originally part of this one but I was asked to separate it.

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5 Answers 5

I've never experienced if uglify-ing your bike works as a deterrent, although I know that cycle couriers in New York use duct tape to cover up the bikes quality from potential thieves. As quite often they don't have the time to lock their bike up. Because of the numbers of them doing it, my guess would be that it works: They wouldn't do it if it didn't have some effect.

Currently I'm experimenting with this. I've just got my frame sprayed black to allow it to blend in. On top of this, I'm going to place duct tape over the frame and cables to hide the quality, at the end of the day I'm not bothered if people know what bike I'm riding, it's the ride that matters, not how it looks!

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Thanks for contemplating the question +1. –  Yar Mar 25 '12 at 21:02
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One caution with this - make sure the frame number is still clearly readable. Otherwise if you take it into a bike shop they may well regard it as probably stolen. Also, watch how much it all weighs, you may find you paid extra for a lightweight frame and now it weighs as much as the beater bike it resembles. –  Kohi Mar 25 '12 at 21:47
    
Already thought about it, old paint shot blasted and I'm limiting the amount of duct tape I'm putting on. Should have mentioned that earlier... –  MChandler Mar 25 '12 at 21:52
    
What's "shot blasted?" –  Yar Mar 26 '12 at 15:13
    
@Kohi: You're kidding right? How much duct tape do you think it takes to add 5lbs to the weight of a bike, anyway? –  Ernie Dec 14 '12 at 20:25

I would guess that hard evidence is going to be difficult to come by -- doing anything resembling a controlled experiment would be enormously expensive, and cyclists are too disorganized (by this I mean lacking unified organizational structure) to do some sort of sampling-based measurement or epidemiological study.

I would just observe that, in my opinion, bike thieves come in several varieties, with differing motivations, and the likelihood that a particular bike will be selected for theft depends a lot on the type of thief:

  • Glitter-attracted impulse thief. Someone sees a fancy/shiny bike (by their standards) that catches their attention, has low self-control, and so just rides off with it, on a lark.
  • Necessity/opportunity thief. Someone is in an immediate situation where a bike would be handy (eg, it's raining, or they're in a hurry), sees one, and rides off with it.
  • Theft for personal acquisition. Someone sees a bike they like, feel that it would be a good bike for them, and takes it.
  • Theft for resale. Someone steals bikes to sell for money.

In the last two categories there's also the division of theft for the whole bike and theft for parts (or removing parts from the sitting bike).

Of these categories, the first will probably be put off by "uglification", but it will have relatively little effect on the second type of thief. (In fact, the second thief may be apt to pick a less-expensive looking of several equally available bikes, to lessen the seriousness of their crime -- at least in their own minds.)

The third thief will have specific attributes in mind for a bike and may or may not be put off by the obfuscated appearance, depending in part on how perceptive he is. (But keep in mind that of the four he's the most likely to spend time studying the fine points of the bike.)

The fourth thief will likely know how to recognize a valuable bike, even obfuscated, but may choose to pass over one that has been permanently defaced or which would take too much effort to clean up.

You can also evaluate these categories based on how effective locks will be. The first thief is apt to be deterred by a halfway secure lock but may (or may not) have at hand the wherewithal to defeat a lightweight one. The second thief will almost certainly pass over a bike that is at all encumbered with a lock, even skipping a bike locked only by the QR-attached front wheel. The third thief may be willing to spend some time defeating a lock on a bike he desires but may not be especially skillful, while the fourth thief will have the skills and tools to defeat many locks quickly.

The character of the neighborhood, time of day, etc, will affect the mix of these different thief types.

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2 and 4 are both "does it work" thieves - if the bike can be ridden it's worth taking, the only question is whether it's effectively locked. IME that's the big question for the low-end thieves, as they're likely to sell the bike for $100 or less based on "you can ride it". It's the pros who will know what exactly they're selling, and unless you (eg) replace your nice hydro disks with kmart cable ones, they'll look at that sort of thing and decide your bike is worth taking. –  Kohi Mar 26 '12 at 3:37
    
Wow Daniel, great analysis both of the lack of evidence and the field. @Kohi Good points. I'm not 100% convinced for the fourth category. A Canondale that has everything down to the "Made in USA" still written on it is actually worth more and can be resold for more than a bike that really has been defaced (albeit on purpose). –  Yar Mar 26 '12 at 15:12
    
@Yar -- Like I said, to the "pro" thief the calculus would be about how easily the bike can be cleaned up and sold. And this probably depends in part on how he fences his goods and what the fence's business model is -- sell to shady shops (need clean bikes/parts), or sell to the garage sale retailers (if it'll turn a buck it's worth stealing). –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 26 '12 at 15:42
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Categories 1 and 2 (and to a lesser extent 3) fall into what I've heard called the "Junkie stole my bike" domain. An interesting deterrent for these is to make your bike hard for an ordinary person to ride. Attach SPD pedals. Take the front wheel or seat indoors with you. Disengage the chain from the chain rings. De-tension calliper breaks if you have a lever for that purpose. Essentially, anything that will make it hard to just 'ride off' with your bike can act as a deterrent. –  John Doucette Mar 26 '12 at 16:32
    
Thanks @JohnDoucette, great point. Of course, removing the front wheel is kind of different from disengaging the chain: in one, it's obviously not ridable, and in the other scenario, thief would have to break lock and get on bike before noticing... –  Yar Mar 27 '12 at 13:35

A few years ago in Toronto, what was probably one of the biggest bike theft busts ever happened. Igor Kenk was trading drugs for stolen bikes, and stockpiling them by the thousands. (Supposedly he was planning to corner the market post-econopocalypse or post-ecopocalypse and be a king). Anyways, you can see pictures or the thousands of bikes that he stole:

kenk auction

kenk auction 2

While there are definitely a lot of ugly bikes in there, I can't pick out any that are "uglified." It's not great evidence either way because I couldn't even hazard a guess about what percentage of bikes are uglified for comparison. I don't think you can draw much of a conclusion from it.

Image sources:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zandersaar/2790241356/sizes/o/in/photostream/

http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/article/776159--bike-thief-igor-kenk-released-from-jail

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Love this answer... in the absence of great evidence, you have to speculate! +1 –  Yar Mar 26 '12 at 16:21
    
I read a bit about Kenk and I believe the majority of these bikes were bought stolen, not stolen by himself. Also, he was also a bike mechanic, so I doubt he could be deterred by uglifying, he knew well what he was buying/stealing. –  Mladen Jablanović Dec 9 '12 at 12:07
    
1. Dude be crazy. 2. Dude didn't care about the condition of the bikes, just gave $20 for any bike the neighbourhood crackheads gave him. So of course the condition of the bikes varies widely here. –  Ernie Dec 14 '12 at 20:32

This may qualify as anecdotal evidence.My riding buddies carbon road bike had a section of top tube cut out to steal his kids $200 mountainbike off of the trunk mounted bike rack.

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What does that evidence mean to you vis-a-vis the value of uglifying? I'm not questioning the small sample size, that's fine for me (and science, I might note). –  Yar Mar 27 '12 at 7:13
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+1 for the anecdote. –  Carey Gregory Nov 12 '13 at 5:35

It is effective against certain kinds of bike theft, particularly if you already lock up your bike effectively every single time (which is a good assumption if you're willing to go through the trouble to uglify it). Many people swear by it. For example, LDS missionaries in Taiwan repaint their new bikes poorly as a matter of tradition.

As Daniel already pointed out, there are several kinds of bike thieves. The US Deparment of Justice COPS report on bike theft in 2008 lists the following kinds of bike thieves:

  • Joyrides: These thieves steal a bike for convenience or for pleasure, with no intention to resell it.
  • Quick cash: These thieves are opportunist, looking for a quick buck to be made off of theft
  • Planned theft: These are usually experienced thieves or experienced bikers who see a bike and steal it despite obstacles

To the first and second kind of thief, appearance is only a minor concern. To the third appearance is a major concern. The amount of each type of thief really depends on the area. In some areas very few are joyriders, whereas, in other areas mentioned in the report, up to 80% of the reported stolen bikes were abandoned and later recovered. Your risk for each type of thief also depends on where, when, and how you lock up your bike.

As these interviews with bike thieves point out, most bike theft of the first two kinds happens primarily because the bike is inadequately locked, not because of appearance, although appearance may deter these thieves regardless. Thieves often sell stolen bikes for dirt cheap, down to $100 or less, so to them it doesn't matter much if it looks like a beater bike or a racing bike. For example, my brother had his $80 old Walmart bike stolen when he left it in an apartment bike rack overnight with just a cable lock. The interviews even mention that bikes over $1000 are sometimes too risky for low-level thieves to steal.
All of this may explain why this study found that cheap bikes, including used cheap bikes, are among the most frequently stolen (see the picture below). The study also found that used bikes under $150 dollars are stolen many times more frequently than new bikes in the same price range. However, this raw data has some complexities, like how cheap old bikes are several times more popular than new, expensive ones and how expensive-bike-owners are usually more thorough in their locking practices.

One study found that cheap bikes are among the most commonly stolen

That being said, there is a difference between making a bike look worthless and making a bike look repulsive. Stickers and rust are repulsive, while a bad paint job and a milk crate on back are just cheap. Making your bike look unsellable at any price should be your goal, not to make it look like a cheap beater.

Somewhere like New York with more of the third kind of thefts, planned thefts by seasoned thieves, is going to be an area where appearance matters far more and how you lock it matters much less. The interviews with thieves that I mentioned earlier shows how professional thieves will be ordered to steal an expensive bike or a certain brand of bike, or will see one and case it, coming back at an opportune moment with power tools or whatever it takes. Against these kinds of theft, changing appearance is one of the only methods of prevention.

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