Downtown bike shops are hearing more complaints and questions about bike thefts, particularly from so-called “safe rooms” and bike racks in secured parking garages.
Employees at a few apartment buildings downtown agreed that thefts have increased — although eight of the twelve buildings contacted refused to comment or provide information about the alleged thefts.
"More and more people are coming in and saying their bikes have been stolen," said Matthew Guerrero, of the Bike Revolution. "The high-rises with lock rooms keep getting broken into — it's a pretty common thing these days because it's an easy target."
Guerrero said that once thieves get into the “secure” bike areas, nabbing the bikes is easy.
"They're usually locked with low-security locks because people think they're already in a locked room," he explained.
Mo Karimi, who owns the San Diego Bike Shop on Sixth Avenue and C Street, says he's hearing about more thefts these days.
"Every day I hear a story from a customer who's bike has been stolen from inside their building," Karimi said. "I've been hearing about it for ten years, but the last couple of years it's out of control. It's a crime unchecked."
Police don't track bike thefts as a separate category, according to San Diego police officer Travis Easter. The thefts are classified as misdemeanor or felony thefts, depending on what the bike is worth, but can also be part of a burglary report.
Part of the increase in thefts, according to Karimi, is because more people are riding bikes.
"Everything about biking is good: it's healthy, it saves money, it cuts greenhouse-gas emissions," Karimi said. "But it's also easy to steal a bike and sell it."
Residential buildings aren't the only place bikes are being stolen, he said.
"We hear a lot about Horton Plaza, the 24-Hour Fitness, in front of the supermarket."
For cops, bike thefts are a regular report and a frustrating matter, Officer Easter said.
"People call us to tell us somebody stole it, or they see someone riding their stolen bike and we ask if they have the serial number, and they don't," Easter said. "Even if we believe the person, if I can't prove it, I can't do anything."
Easter is familiar with thefts from lock rooms and areas in such buildings.
"Sometimes we find the doors were left unlocked or an awful lot of people had access to the area. Cameras help."
An employee at Market Square Apartments confirmed that tenants have had bikes stolen from the building's locked garage.
"It happens all the time, we usually get reports one-by-one," she said. "People only know the bike is stolen after they go look for it, so it's hard to tell if they were taken one at a time or all at once."
Other buildings in Little Italy and the Core Columbia neighborhoods refused to answer questions. Most building staff took messages and the calls weren't returned.
A 2008 report on bicycle thefts found that such thefts were generally under-reported; for every reported theft, three or four weren't reported. The recovery and arrest rates were dismal, and the report notes that often police can't return recovered bicycles because the owner can't prove it is theirs. Recovery rates are particularly low for expensive bikes, the report states.
Karimi has been involved with bike recoveries because someone has brought in a stolen bike for repair or tried to sell it and because he is part of a network of bicyclists.
"I heard one morning about a couple whose bikes were stolen — a Cannondale and a Trek worth probably $5000," he recalled. "So I look out the window when I'm opening the store and I see a guy waiting in front of the store across the street with the bikes, waiting for them to open so he can sell them."
Karimi said he called the couple and went across the street to stall the man until the couple got there, then introduced them as the people whose bikes the man had.
"The guy said, ‘Sure, you keep them,’ and took off," Karimi said.