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Businesses that sell used bikes and/or parts clearly have value for communities and the environment. They are a way of reducing waste and reallocating gear that still has useful life, they are a resource for DIY-minded cyclists or tinkerers, they serve populations that might be priced out of mainstream retail shops, and the list goes on. However, they need to get their product from somewhere, and bicycle theft is a major problem in many of the same areas where the legitimate used market is also naturally strong.

If you want to operate such a business and keep a clear conscience, what do you do?

Depending on where you are in the world, there may be various law enforcement agencies to run a serial number with, or independent websites like bikeindex.org to check, but they threaten to be token efforts, as many thefts go unreported. And in the case of the non-LE sites and databases, experience (mine) has shown that the situation can become murky and time-consuming when you do find that the bike in front of you is listed on one, since local law enforcement may not be willing to simply take control of the situation at that point in the same way they would if the bike was officially reported stolen to them.

Parts are their own challenge. Some number of legitimate users of your business will have interest in supplying you with parts for trade or sale, but taking these transactions clearly risks becoming an unintentional fence for thieves. Relying on heuristic discretion (this looks hot, that person looks sketchy) may seem like an obvious answer, but allows bias into the process, is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of, and leads to stressful situations in practice. Reselling used parts can seem impossible to do ethically, which is unfortunate because it is essentially a form of recycling.

What proven models exist that can solve or reasonably mitigate these problems?

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    I would be willing to wager a good chunk of people here work in the cycling industry. I fear there is a not a good cut and dry answer to this, although i am also curious to see the results.
    – Nate W
    Jun 22 at 17:06
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    Dunno if I have a full answer to contribute, but a bit of a frame challenge that buying from walk-ins is necessary for the arrangement to work. Plenty of co-ops that accept donations only for this reason and acquire inventory from police auctions, yard sales, etc. are financially viable and make most money on service anyway.
    – Affe
    Jun 22 at 22:40
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    technically, isn't it "reuse", not "recycling"?
    – Michael
    Jun 23 at 17:25
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    Another model might be to not be a business, but to be a charity/volunteer society. If all incoming stock items are donated, then there's no incentive for stolen bikes to turn up.
    – Criggie
    Jun 24 at 3:41
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    What @Criggie said! There's a shop a few miles from where I live that sells* used bikes and used bike parts, but they don't buy them. They have plenty in stock just from donations. Jun 24 at 19:00
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There's a local bike shop that has exactly this model. They buy bikes from walk-ins.

They recently got charged for receiving stolen goods from one guy who turned out to be a convicted burglar, who would bring in a bike a week to sell, but always tried to talk to different staff, and each only saw him once every month or two.

So defence against this could include any of:

  • Requiring proof of purchase, seller has to have original paperwork

  • Seller has to "seem plausible" ie a dad with a 10 year old in tow, selling a 5 year old's bike looks legitimate, but an obviously overweight man selling a fancy carbon road bike claiming "I don't ride it anymore" is less plausible.

  • When buying a bike take a photo of the person who brought it in, and store that. Also ask for a photo ID and get a photo of that too. Tell the seller that this info will be kept and shared amongst all staff and....

  • Build relationships with other shops in the same business. Share that buyer info (securely) but prevent someone doing a honeybee from shop to shop.

  • Buy on consignment, not for cold cash. So you take the bike, get info, and give a receipt. Once the bike sells only then does the seller get their payment. That way if it turns out to be stolen, the seller gets no money for it and the shop has not "traded in stolen goods"

  • Build a working relationship with the local police, especially those officers/staff working in the burglary/theft departments.

  • Set up the shop so the sellers have to bring the bike to the back, in past several cameras that are recording.

All this will work to limit the number of bikes that are brought in. Expand that by:

  • Find and connect with people who don't ride, but do legitimately source bikes. Rental cleanup businesses, and those who clean out storage lockers might reasonably source bikes without knowing anything about them.
  • The police recovery auctions are a good place to acquire bikes with a chequered past, that are now legitimised by the police process.

Train one's staff to smell a problem - if the seller doesn't know a drop bar from a drop bear and their bike is a racey bike then enact more limits and restrictions. Once you know someone, make it easier for them.

Ultimately there will be mistakes, but the shop is in the clear if they've worked hard to limit the risk. And ideally helped the Po with catching some idiots.


Interestingly, here's the real-world:

Newspaper story from the time https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/115199174/judge-calls-on-police-to-investigate-bike-shop-that-bought-seven-stolen-bikes

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    All good points, however some of them may be hard to implement in certain countries. In particular taking, storing and exchanging customers' personal data is subject to strict laws in EU and non-EU countries. Same applies to CCTV-recording practices — it is quite hard to get a permit for installing and operating a camera in many cases. Just yesterday, a huge mass-transit operator in my country got a hefty fine because of bodywear cameras used by ticket controllers. The cameras stored up to 1 minute of recent footage, but it was deemed too much and that it should be reduced to 15 seconds. Jun 23 at 6:41
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    'obviously overweight man selling a fancy carbon road bike claiming "I don't ride it anymore" is less plausible' - definitely doesn't apply here in the UK. With the exception of the most challenging routes, go to any sportive event here and half the field will be overweight men on fancy carbon bikes.
    – Andy P
    Jun 23 at 8:15
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    Overall, something like "get as much ID as you can within local laws" may be more appropriate in an international forum, but those are good examples of methods. Related: here in the UK, scrap metal dealers, faced with a similar problem, can't legally pay cash, only bank transfer or cheque, i.e. traceable methods
    – Chris H
    Jun 23 at 8:16
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    Another point: bikes have IDs too. Every one has a serial number, which you shop should register and check against a list of stolen ones. Your shop should have a notice stating this, which will deter bike stealers. Also round here you can take your bike to be chipped, so that is a service your shop could offer.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 23 at 13:15
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    @Criggie Is my bike gray or dark blue? Just because I ride it all the time doesn't mean I'm a color expert, but I don't want to write down the wrong thing. Or maybe it's got multiple colors and I want to make sure I don't forget any of them (I've got a bike that is black with yellow and red ... what's it called, livery? This takes up almost half the surface of the bike, but I usually forget about the red until I look at it because it's less noticeable). Or for that matter, if I have multiple bikes I might want to double check which one I'm actually selling.
    – Michael
    Jun 23 at 17:32
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If you want to operate such a business and keep a clear conscience, what do you do?

In short: That's easy-peasy: you accept only donated parts/bikes, or require for proof of purchase (so you are safe at 99%). Sure, falsified proof of purchase may be produced, however we are discussing about the conscience and good-faith of the buyer, not about a technical way, right? It is still possible that the used parts are coming from upgrading a stolen bicycle, but chances are fairly low. In the past 10 years, the number of people buying online and or taking picture of the receipt on expensive items increased quite a lot, so proof of purchase should be common.

Not so short: please note that clear coscience and law-abiding are not always aligned. For a more philosophical approach: ask Igor Kenk (video is geo-located in Canada, you will need a VPN to watch it) or read his history as an interactive comic.

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  • plus: the strong selling point of used parts is the recycling/environment aspect, right? As long as you try to live car-free or at least car light, you are sparing tons of materials and tons of oil ... how many Deore brakes can be mold instead of the chassis of a Ford Bronco :D ?
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 23 at 14:25
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You might also talk with your local law enforcement (and pawn shops) to see what they would recommend as a deterrent against people trying to sell stolen equipment. They deal with a much broader range of stolen item concerns than just bicycles, so might have some good suggestions for you to protect yourself while being safe legally with the seller's data you might want to collect or share.

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    Yup, "pawn shop" was my first thought. They've dealt with these issues for decades. OP may even need to "register" as a pawn shop to be allowed to collect the data that would help prove their innocence should stolen goods show up. (I'd imagine that one could even legally be a pawn shop without ever advertising the fact or allowing for the actual pawning of items.)
    – FreeMan
    Jun 24 at 13:55
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It's an interesting question. There's an inherent risk that anything might be stolen if bought used but often the question never becomes a concern.

One method for a shop is to resell bikes that have been part exchanged against a new bike. You then have the background information on the customer plus the relationship which hopefully extends into servicing and providing parts and accessories. This can be quite a big part of a shop income but getting the value of the used bike can be tough and it has to be in serviceable condition.

I wouldn't bother with used parts unless they are vintage. Newer used parts are often ridden to death or can have defects that are difficult to spot until they are in use. As a professional, you save alot of headaches by not recycling parts off old bikes. Vintage parts are frequently old enough that the original owner has died so origin/ownership is a moot point.

Cycle projects that recycle or rebuild bikes for the community or other projects mostly rely on donation bikes or bikes rescued from the tip which they will strip for parts to rebuild more worthy bikes. I don't see there's much problem there as there's no profit in donating stolen bikes to charitable causes so unlikely to attract career criminals, just Robin Hood.

I don't think that there's much of a business opportunity in buying used bikes to resell as used -- the profit margin and income reliability isn't there to make it a worthwhile proposition.

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  • Bikes that are donated to projects could still have been stolen then dumped, but aren't likely to be high-end in that case
    – Chris H
    Jun 23 at 8:26
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    Regarding "not much of a business opportunity in reselling used bikes", just come to Amsterdam, you'll find a bike shop on every other corner doing exactly that. Together with rampant bike theft. There are two driving forces behind it: 1) your bike is going to get stolen within a few years anyway, no point getting a fancy one, just grab another second-hand when it happens, and 2) lots and lots of students, expats and other "bloody foreigners" keep buying cheapo bikes that they will have to offload a few years later when they leave.
    – TooTea
    Jun 23 at 13:09
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I can't find the article to share with you, but there was a single bike store in Toronto maybe 10 years ago that was shut down when the owner was arrested for dealing in stolen bikes. They paid cash for bikes no questions asked and most of them came from street people who spotted unattended bikes, grabbed them and rode to the store as fast as they could. When the store was shut down bike thefts downtown plummeted. So the most important thing you could do is not pay "no questions asked" cash for bikes and accessories.

Most of the ads I see for places that take used bikes offer store credit, not cash. That won't help someone who has decided never to cycle again, but will help most of the people who want a different bike now. If the store runs a charitable program donating bikes to those who need them, they could offer a receipt suitable for getting an income tax deduction. Both of these things are useful to those who you want to bring you their own bikes, and not very useful to a thief who grabbed a bike and hurried to the store with it.

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    The history of the Toronto bike shop can be seen here: tvo.org/video/documentaries/inside-kenk or read here: insidekenk.ca
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 28 at 13:53
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    I did find that, but it focused on the store owner and his life afterwards. What I can't find is the surprised articles 6 months to a year post arrest that are like "wow, there's almost no bike theft any more, it seems like essentially all of it was driven by the existence of this store and their procedures." Jun 28 at 14:21
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Asking for a proof of ownership doesn't seem practical, many people do not keep a receipt or even a warranty for ten years, but there can be some solutions.

One point is that a shop selling used bicycles should always include a maintenance/repair business. In this way it can build a long term relationship with people living in the area that will go beyond the single occasional transaction, in this way the owner would know how reliable are those trying to sell a used bicycle.

Then if someone shows up twice or trice in a short perion should be politely sent away. One wrong purchase could be considered a mistake in good faith, two would be more difficult to justify.

Another idea is to always keep up to date with the prices in flea markets and modern online alternatives. Alway offer less than what can be made selling online, people will show up anyway because the shop would require less hassle. But those who make up a living reselling stolen goods would prefer to get as much as possible.

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