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It seems like pretty much everywhere I look, serial numbers can't do the things that it seems they should be able to do.

They can't help people figure out what bike they have.

They can't help at all when recovering a stolen bike, unless you have the bike's number linked to your identity somehow (good luck finding the bike in the first place).

It seems like the only thing they're useful for is warranty fulfillment. You take your bike to the shop, and they check the serial number to make sure that it's the same one you bought from them three months ago. Is this the only intended purpose of a serial number?

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  • I suspect that, from a manufacturer's point of view, the serial number is a bit of a PITA, but it helps them assure that the bike is really one of theirs, and when it was manufactured. Plus I suspect that many countries/states require that all new bikes sold there have serial numbers. Aug 22 '15 at 18:17
  • Personnaly, some bike manufacturer (usually the smaller, hand made bikes) might be able to get you the history of a bike using the serial. My friend bought a vintage Marinoni and was able to get manufactured date, original paint color, who made it, when it was repainted. I don't think big brand manufacturer (e.g. Giant) might be able or willing to do that.
    – Bibz
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:04
  • 1
    @DanielRHicks I think you have it exactly backwards. Serial numbers were originally put there by the manufacturer because it's useful to them, e.g., for stock control and for identifying bikes with defects in a recall. For example, your laptop has a serial number but nobody ever talks about using that to indicate ownership after a theft. Nov 16 '16 at 8:21
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby - Actually, a laptop serial number, if available, would be used to identify a stolen laptop. And how often have you heard of a bicycle recall? Nov 16 '16 at 13:00
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    Adding [canonical-answer] tag so we can point other questions at this, the ones that quote a serial and expect a full lookup.
    – Criggie
    Jun 5 '20 at 5:35
18

If a manufacturer found they had a quality problem with a batch of products (e.g. bikes but equally cameras, phones...) the serial numbers would allow identification of the substandard units.

If you've recorded the serial number of your bike and a bike thief is caught with bikes in their possession the serial number should help you get it back. This has happened a few times recently around here.

11

A common use of serial number is to prove ownership. If you don't have the serial number linked to your identity then that is your problem. My shop registers the serial number. If they don't put it on the receipt then force them to write it on the receipt. On a used bike write it down and take a picture with your residence in the background. My local police will let you register a bike and they will check serial number of any bikes recovered against that list. Stolen property reports are sent to pawn shops.

You find your bike at a pawn shop. If you have proof of ownership of THAT bike they will return it to you. In my state they have to hold property for 2 weeks before selling.

You suspect a neighbor stole your bike and you take a picture of your bike in his / her garage. Take that to the police and they will investigate. Without a serial number you cannot prove that is your bike.

You see your bike on CraigsList and you call the police. If police won't meet you then go to the buy take the bike and call the police.

You see your bike on eBay and buy it. Prove to PayPal you bought your stolen bike and they will take action. eBay does not want to be in the stolen property business.

A serial number may not slow them down from stealing it but it sure slows down selling it, aids in recovery, and help convict criminals.

A common scenario is they will take a van of stolen bikes to another state and sell them there. I buy a bit on CL and if they have out of town plates I walk. If they cannot give me a credible history on the bike I walk.

Another user of serial number is fraud detection. Is it even a valid serial number? Is it the correct frame for that serial number? Multiple bikes with the same serial number - definitely some counterfeiting going on.

Proof the property property was stolen. If the police raid a garage or warehouse because they suspect goods they have hard evidence that bike is stolen property.

6
  • I am curious who they register the serial number with?
    – Michael B
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:31
  • @MichaelB. Who is who?
    – paparazzo
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:44
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    You said - "My shop registers the serial number" who do they register it with? How do you link it to your identity?
    – Michael B
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:54
  • @MichaelB Register: enter or record on an official list or directory. My shop has little registry that they record the serial number, date, and person. I suspect there are other shops that do the same.
    – paparazzo
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:59
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    ahh so that's what register means, I'd wondered for a while. So its not registered to anything nationally? so unless police went to that shop and specifically asked about that serial number there's no official link between bike serial numbers and identities on a national level?
    – Michael B
    Aug 22 '15 at 21:06
5

The main function of a serial number is to prove that you own the bike. Just like a VIN number on a car, your serial number helps authorities determine who the lost or stolen bike belongs too. Also, it does help the store you purchased the bike from, as well as the company that made the bike, in keeping track of warranties, who owns the bike, the address where the bike belongs, e.t.c. Think of your serial number the same way as you think of registering your car.

As a side note, using the serial number for finding out information about the bike such as make, model, year, e.t.c., may work sometimes, but it is not genuinely a reliable way to find out that information.

4
  • It may be hard to proof make of a bike with the serial number but often it will be useful to rule out a lot of makes, as those have a different kind or length of number.
    – Willeke
    Aug 23 '15 at 7:55
  • I am wondering if the factory who made the bike can tell by the serial number when the bike was made.
    – fixit7
    Jun 5 '20 at 6:02
  • @fixit7 They may be able to tell with top of the range branded models but certainly not with department store welded gas pipe examples.
    – Carel
    Nov 3 '20 at 13:16
  • Serial numbers don't prove ownership. They aren't secret. If I go to the police with a VIN, and say the car with that VIN is mine, they aren't going to do squat unless I have the title, which is what actually proves ownership. The VIN, and serial numbers, exist to make each one unique and identifiable. Ownership is a separate problem. Aug 17 at 1:22
4

I recently had a cycle stolen, the copper (I'm in England!) who came to take the statement, wasn't at all interested in taking the serial number, he reckoned they're never recovered / returned that way and a photo of it was far more useful.

When it was initially stolen, I couldn't find the booklet I'd written the serial number in, so I called the supplier (one of the big online places) and they told me they didn't track serial numbers and there was no way to find it out if I didn't make a note of it.

I think they have a lot more to do with security theatre than actual security. It makes us feel like they're less likely to be stolen, without providing any real protection against.

6
  • 2
    Security and recovery are NOT the same. A lock prevents / slows down a theft and serial number help you prove it is your bike if it is stolen and recovered.
    – paparazzo
    Aug 22 '15 at 20:52
  • @Frisbee My point is that a serial number provides no more chance of recovery than a receipt. Since there is no nationally recognised way of tracking either. A cycle stolen in one part of the country and sold in another will never be recovered, and ebay et al makes selling it in the same area quite unlikely anyway.
    – Michael B
    Aug 23 '15 at 10:58
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    What? Really you think you can find your Trek 620 in a pawn shop and tell them to give it to you because you a have a receipt for A Trek 620. No you have to have have proof of ownership tied to THAT 620 and that is what serial number does. Police recover it. You see it in a garage. Lack of a nation registry does not mean NO value to serial number in recovery of stolen property.
    – paparazzo
    Aug 23 '15 at 17:49
  • @Paparazzi The guy just said that he spoke to the police about his stolen bike and they weren't interested in knowing its serial number. Unless Michael's going to hunt around local pawn shops or people's garages, he's not going to find his bike there so, again, the serial number is no use. Nov 16 '16 at 8:18
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    On the other hand, Cambridgeshire police, who deal with 3000 reported stolen bikes a year, recommend that you do register the frame number, and do (sometimes) reunite stolen bikes with owners that way: cambs.police.uk/crimeprevention/advice/advice.asp?ID=148
    – armb
    Nov 17 '16 at 13:34
2

This will be a mainly negative answer - not in the ad hominem sense, but I mainly discuss how a serial number often fails to identify a bicycle, especially if someone presents a serial number and no other information (especially manufacturer of the bike or at the very least a photo), and asks us to identify the bicycle. The executive summary is that a serial number alone cannot identify a bicycle. Perhaps we can point people to this answer when they present a serial number.

A previous answer on this question says:

Just like a VIN number on a car, your serial number helps authorities determine who the lost or stolen bike belongs too.

Bicycle serial numbers are not exactly like Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs). A VIN is unique to each car, and there is at least one global database of VINs. As a consumer, you can buy an automobile history report if you present the VIN of a prospective purchase to a commercial provider. At least in the US, you can check some limited info for free at the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which is a non-governmental non-profit organization.

Note the bit about insurance. Vehicles are expensive, and repairing them is expensive. Because of their mass and potential velocity, they can cause significant damage to humans and other vehicles. Without getting too deep into the history of automobile insurance, this was part of the impetus for this type of insurance to even exist and to become mandatory in, at the very least, most US states. (And if you are allowed to drive uninsured, you will still be liable for damage that you cause, but that's secondary to the topic.) Also, there is a robust secondary market for motor vehicles, which is another impetus for a global identification number.

The Wikipedia page on VINs doesn't say why they were created. I'd hypothesize that a major part of the impetus was the need for insurance (and thus, the need to identify the unique vehicle under contract and to identify parties in an accident) and the issue of theft (i.e. identify your car if recovered). Whatever the case, there were some collective action problems in even creating VIN formats, so the International Organization for Standardization had to step in to propose formats, and national governments had to create legislation to mandate that these formats be used.

Bicycles are often used as recreational vehicles and as secondary transport vehicles. They can certainly injure pedestrians and other bicycles, but the potential scope of injury is less. Thus, there has been less impetus to create a national mandatory database of identification numbers for bicycles. They tend to be much less expensive than cars - it is possible to build top end bicycles at a comparable price to many cars, but exceedingly few people spend this amount. Bicycle insurance is a niche product, at least in the US (this covers events not covered by one's homeowner's or renter's insurance), and not many people buy it, even if they have expensive bicycles. One example of a bicycle insurance provider at the time of writing is Velosurance. They most likely are able to identify their covered bicycles through what serial numbers are provided, as well as other identifying information (e.g. photograph the bicycle).

Indeed, to my knowledge, there is no national database of bicycle registration numbers that all manufacturers must automatically submit data to. There are some voluntary bicycle registration databases, e.g. the National Bike Registry, Bike Index, and the International Bike Registry. Their existence and utility are discussed in this Stack Exchange Q&A. However, you have to know they exist, and if you check a bike there, the original owner would have had to know about the bicycle and register it there. Thus, these systems likely cover only a small minority of bicycles. Also, that Q&A mentioned that there are some bicycle registration databases that are exclusive to US law enforcement, but again, they're voluntary, and the police department has to elect to use them and to keep consistently inputting data (presumably on recovered bicycles, but the answer wasn't clear on that).

Even if you know the bicycle's manufacturer, the serial number likely provides very little information to the general public. For prominent manufacturers, it's possible that other riders have deduced the format of the serial number, e.g. some information can be gleaned through the first two characters of Schwinn serial numbers, at least for some manufacture dates. But do note that that site doesn't say that you can identify a Schwinn model from the serial number, and it says that the formats varied by place of manufacturer. I think that some Serotta aficionados can deduce the frame model from the serial number. However, how many people have even heard of Serotta? It was an eponymously named company that did high-end steel and titanium frames, mix of stock and custom. The fact that some people can identify Serotta models and years of manufacture given a serial number is very unrepresentative. Also, some Colnagos may be identifiable through their serial numbers, but Chuck Schmidt of the site Velo-Retro.com had this to say:

Serial numbering only started for Colnago on USA-bound bikes when the CPSC started requiring tracking, etc. West Coast Cycles was importing Colnago at the time and the serial numbers started for their product. There is still no way to find manufacturing date by the numbers, except that they are 1979 or later…

If you present a manufacturer with a serial number, then they can often identify your bike's make and model. I am not sure if they can always do so, as I have no experience nor empirical evidence. If they used inconsistent serial number formats in the past, the task would be harder. Also, corporate ownership can disrupt record keeping and retention of internal knowledge. For example, Schwinn Bicycles was independent from 1895 to, I believe, 1992 when they declared bankruptcy. They were purchased by a series of investment funds, merged with GT, went bankrupt again, and finally purchased by a firm that supplies - again, not meant as ad homimen - low-end department store bicycles. If you called the current Schwinn Bicycles, the current corporation's staff might or might know the historical serial number formats or be able to look them up. Or they might decide that it's not worth identifying historical Schwinns for second (or third, fourth, etc) hand owners. Or if you are asking for specific information on a single bicycle, as opposed to just year of manufacture and model, then this might call for detailed individual records, and these might have been lost in change of ownership, or might have been pen and paper originally and not converted to machine-readable format (i.e. if you scanned PDFs of the documents, they might not be searchable by the computer).

It is true that you can register your bicycle with the police. This may help prove your ownership if it's stolen and later recovered - if the police recover it, if they can be bothered to consult their records, and if they kept adequate records to begin with. Remember that many bicycles are stolen, and their commercial value is much less than cars. @paparazzo's answer said local police. To elaborate more: if you register your bicycle with your local police force, and if that same force recovers your bicycle and they can be bothered to check the serial number against their registry, this could lead to a notification. Police may genuinely have more pressing cases to clear, e.g. violent crimes. Also, for higher-end bikes, my understanding is that many criminals will steal in one location and then fence the bike in another; it's possible that the police forces in both locations are using the same bike database, but not a guarantee.

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  • 3
    +1 for the distinction between VIN and global VIN database. Conflation of serial number with an accessible record of the serial number’s history & metadata causes the unmet expectations we see. Nobody’s keeping track of the history.
    – asp47
    Aug 16 at 20:41

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