Anti-Theft Strategies for Motorcyclists

How to take that "Steal Me" sign off your bike. From the August 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser. By Art Friedman.

One of the dangers of popularity, such as that currently being experienced by cruisers, is that it also makes that type of motorcycle popular with thieves. As the customer base expands, there are more people who need parts, and some who don't feel like paying retail. But even inexpensive motorcycles with little following are stolen more often than their owners expect. Insuring against theft can help after the fact, but most owners are disappointed with the blue-book value that the insurer pays after the theft. And nothing compensates for that feeling of having been violated when your bike is stolen.

The solution starts with the recognition that your bike might be a target for thieves. A little paranoia is a good thing; it can even be fun. And a little may be all you need; many thefts can be prevent just with elementary precautions.

Why Steal My Bike?

Motorcycles get stolen for a variety of motives. It may be a simple crime of opportunity. The bike is there, and the thief sees no obstacles to a quick heist. The reason may be a simple joy ride or an amateur thief who thinks he can get something for your bike. Of course, it can be a pro, too. A pro probably has a shopping list; today your bike could be on the list.

Stolen motorcycles that aren't simply discarded when a joy-rider gets done can be delivered into several fates. They can be dismantled for parts. They can be smuggled out of the country and sold as-is, vehicle identification number (VIN) intact. (They have to pay for all those drugs smuggled into the country somehow.) The parts can be installed in a custom frame -- or what is passed off as a custom frame -- and sold as a new bike. Probably least likely, since it involves the most effort, they can just be given altered VINs and resold here.

The bikes most likely to make a pro's shopping list are bikes that are frequently crashed, those which have some racing application, those for which the engine has some other use (such as a some car-racing formula class), those which are often customized, and those sold in large numbers. Many cruiser models fall into both the last two categories.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Most people recognize that casual theft is a crime of opportunity, but a pro needs an opportunity as well. He needs to find your motorcycle. He may get lucky and find it unlocked in a not-too-busy public place while he's on his way to get a quart of milk and simply take it on the spot. More likely he sees it parked somewhere regularly and makes a note when he has an order, spots you riding it and follows you home or to work and grabs it later, or shops at a large motorcycle event, where large numbers of motorcycles show up and their owners go inside and leave their bikes unattended.

To prevent a thief from spotting your bike, hide it. If you have a regular Wednesday-night Bingo habit, put a cover over the bike in the church parking lot after you lock it and set the alarm. If you spend Friday and Saturday nights at a friend's house, ask if you can park your pink cruiser in her garage instead leaving out where anyone can get at it. Park your bike next to the security shack at work, cover it and make friends with all the security folks, so they know who should be leaving with that bike.

To keep thieves from knowing where it's garaged, watch your mirrors as you approach your residence. About once a month, as I approach my house, I'll spot someone who might be following me. Instead of making that final turn toward home, I'll drive right on by, then make three or four turns around a block a short way beyond. If that vehicle is still following after I have made that many turns, my next turn is toward the police station. When I get home, the bike immediately gets tucked out of view. This is also why we recommend that, when selling a bike, you never meet the potential buyer at your house, since this may simply be a way of lining up a bike to steal. And a test ride can be tantamount to giving the bike away, no matter now good his collateral seems to be. We have received letters from people who lost their bikes after accepting a stolen car as a guarantee of good faith or a "girlfriend," who turned out to be a woman the thief just met. The victim even had to drive her home.

The now-defunct annual motorcycle show at Anaheim, California turned into a sort of shopping center for crooks. Thieves had hundreds of bikes to choose from and only light traffic in the lot, which didn't even have a security officer. A crook would show up and cruise the lot for a while looking at the bikes, helmet in hand. No one thought anything about it. Upon finding a bike he wanted with nothing to slow down his departure, he popped the ignition lock and took off. This scenario is repeated at other motorcycle events around the country. Police have found semi trailers full of stolen bikes at Daytona Bike Week. The wary owner has one ace to play at these events: with so many bikes to choose from, chances are that most thieves will pass yours over if you do almost anything to make it a bit harder to steal.

Large parking areas, like parking structures at major airports, are also likely places for thieves to find bikes. We have a company policy that prohibits testers from parking borrowed motorcycles at major airports. College parking lots, malls, even the street in front of motorcycle dealers are other easy places for thieves to locate a particular bike. An airport parking lot is pretty deserted at 2:00 a.m., and the bad guys may have time to bypass multiple theft deterrents. If you use such places, try to park in sight of the attendants AND use at least a hefty lock.

Hard to Steal

I know of an instance where a lightweight bicycle chain that probably could have been cut with a solid pair of dikes stopped a thief, who had presumably overlooked it and was surprised after he popped the ignition/fork lock and tried to ride away. On the other end of the spectrum, thieves cut through three burly locks and took a fourth with the bike.

This last bike was a textbook case of the capabilities of professional thieves. The bike was garaged in a communal garage at an apartment building, and you had to talk to a security guard on the way in. The three locks that were cut secured the bike to an immovable object. The fourth merely kept it from rolling, which probably wasn't a problem with a van. In another case, thieves broke a gate lock, a garage lock, removed the front wheel which was locked to something solid and carried the bike over a bigger, newer, more expensive bike to put it in their van. The bare frame was found the following day beside a remote road.

Almost anything will stop the joy-rider. In fact, enacting helmet laws brings a decrease in motorcycle theft because the thief must have a helmet if he plans to ride the bike away or he runs a significant risk of attracting the attention of the police. This helps eliminate spur-of-the-moment rip-offs. A visible lock or obvious alarm will often (but not always) keep the amateur from even trying to steal your bike. We have heard of cases where an amateur tried unsuccessfully to steal a bike despite an obvious lock. The ignition switch was jimmied, but the lock stopped them.

Ride-away theft is easier to deal with than the gang who throws your bike in a truck. The solo thief may carry a slide-hammer and perhaps some cutters, but he probably can't deal with a hefty U-lock, a thick cable or a good disc lock. You can also stop him with a surprise: a hidden switch in the ignition or main circuit that keeps the bike from starting, a hidden fuel cut-off that stops the bike 100 feet down the road, a hidden lock (such as a small padlock in the chain) or unusual obstacle (a lock that pulls the centerstand toward the front wheel, for example) or an alarm that doesn't announce itself until the bike starts. He will probably check for an alarm by bumping the bike to see if it beeps before he tries to take it and may find a way to subvert it if he finds one. We sometimes remove the fuses from bikes when we park to prevent ride-aways, and this saved a bike once. The important thing here is to use some form of anti-theft measure. Most cruisers have separate fork and ignition lock, which at least doubles the work load -- provided the rider utilizes them, but a disc lock or alarm raises your security level substantially.

Professionals are a greater challenge, but surprise can be especially effective here. If an unexpected alarm sounds while he is trying to defeat a solid lock, he's probably gone if the lock hasn't been beaten yet. If something out of the ordinary occurs, he's likely to move on. And many pros are just looking for the quick, easy hit; they ride the unprotected bike away. A lock will stop them because it involves extra time and risk.

Locks

Locks offer varying degrees of security, convenience and portability. A simple lock like a disc lock, which simply prevents the wheel from turning, fits into most pockets but does nothing to stop the gang that throws a bike into a truck. A cable or large U-lock that locks the bike to something solid presents an obstacle to four-wheeled thieves. Ideally, this lock should be secured to a part of the bike that can't be unbolted the way a wheel can. A system like Kryptonite's Barbed Wire, which uses a long cable that can be looped around a lightpost at one end and secured with a disc lock (perhaps to the frame) at the other gives maximum reach for every foot and pound of cable.

Carrying a hefty cable may be difficult unless you have saddlebags. However, using two locks, preferably of different designs so different tools are required to break them, virtually ensures against ride-away theft. You should be able to use a cable system at home. If you own your home, you can install fixtures in your garage to provide a secure locking point. This can be a steel loop or simple eyebolts sunk into your garage floor.

If you don't have a fixture or light post available, lock that cable to any large object it can reach -- another bike, a car bumper, anything that prevents the slimeballs from taking your bike without cutting the cable. A U-lock that secures a frame rail or fork tube to a parking-meter pole can be very effective because the bike must be lifted above the parking meter -- which may block it -- if they plan to take it without destroying the lock.

When choosing a lock, rely on an established, respected brand. Companies like Kryptonite and Cobralinks have been around for a long time and have had lots of experiences which allows them to improve and toughen their products. The newcomers and cheap imitations are susceptible to the techniques developed to defeat those locks years ago. Next, choose a lock that doesn't require more than you are willing to deal with. If you have no convenient way to carry a sturdy cable, its security will eventually be left at home when you need it. On the other hand, a U-lock or disc lock is handy for anybody. Some bikes have storage spaces designed for U-locks, and others have spots that will accommodate them easily.

One warning about wheel locks. Sooner or later almost everybody forgets the lock and starts to ride away. There are two simple tactics to prevent this. One is to always park so that you must back out of the parking spot. In addition to adding one extra delay for a thief, this will remind you that the lock is there before it damages your bike or causes you to tip over. The other system uses a piece of tape, When the lock is installed on the wheel, the tape goes over your ignition keyhole. When you remove the lock, the tape is put over its keyhole.

Alarms

Since an experienced, well-equipped thief can defeat virtually any lock arrangement given enough time -- which may just be a minute or two -- you can stop him by reducing the time he has to work. The best way to do this is with an alarm.

Alarms range from simple motion sensors or devices that respond to the ignition being turned on to devices with remote arming, perimeter sensors, anti-hijack set-ups, ignition kill circuits, pagers and other features. Our Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic is fitted with a Scorpio alarm system that includes most of these features. From our offices on the 17th floor, we have no way of hearing the alarm's siren, but the pager would at least let us look out the window and see which way the bike went -- assuming they got past the ignition-disable feature, building security and the 20-pound adjustable wrench of our shop foreman.

Probably the most important consideration when choosing and setting up an alarm is minimizing false alarms without making it excessively insensitive. False alarms are annoying and will make you ill-prepared for a real theft in progress. However, assuming you use an alarm in conjunction with a lock or locks, you want it to be sensitive enough to sound off when a thief begins to attack your lock. This requires extra time with the sensitivity adjustment during installation and, usually, some follow-up adjustment after it's installed.

Many alarms include an external light, which signals that the unit is armed and may also provide other signals, such as alerting you that the alarm has been tripped in your absence. These are intended to discourage the casual or amateur thief, and may save you from returning to discover that your ignition lock has been smashed before the alarm was triggered. However, they will also warn a pro that he has to defeat the alarm. We would rather buy a few ignition lock sets than let a pro have the bike, so we prefer to dispense with these.

We like pagers, since no one pays attention to alarms any more, and we like features that permit us to disable the motion sensor when you park in a very busy area. We also prefer not to have a perimeter alarm, which seems to cause more problems than it solves (unless you have a private parking space).

When installing an alarm, we wire it -- especially on the ground side -- directly to the battery. This prevents a thief from disabling it by cutting the ground wire. Wiring and the siren should be out of sight so they can't be attacked by the thief. If the alarm has a remote with an anti-hijack feature, we fasten the remote to the key with a two-piece pull-apart key chain and always separate the remote and put it in a pocket before starting the bike. The remote is no good if the bike-jacker rides away with it still attached to the key. Bike-jacking seems to be a pleasantly rare crime, however.

An alarm is most effective when used in conjunction with a lock. Even a basic motion sensor with siren can cut down the time a thief has to try to defeat your lock(s). If it surprises him, all the better. Remember that a pro will usually bump the bike to see if it has an alarm. If your normally reliable alarm goes off one night, it may be an indication that a pro is scouting your bike and will return with a means of defeating the alarm before he attacks the lock(s). This may be a warning to add to or vary your security measures. It's also a case for having a pager without an external siren. The thief will never know that he has triggered the alarm until you and Smith and Wesson inform him.

One note about "false" alarms. They may not be. A thief scouting your bike may bump it to see if it has an armed alarm. One victim tells us that the alarm for his bike, parked outside his apartment, started going off every few nights. He finally stopped setting it, and sure enough, the bike was gone a couple of nights later.

Perhaps even more effective than an alarm on the bike is an alarm in your garage. Whether this is a dedicated system or an extension of the system on the rest of your home, it will give you warning before a thief can even begin to address the lock(s) securing your bike. We like systems with battery back-ups and no external pieces that a thief can disable. Door or motion sensors are probably the most useful, but even a pressure pad is effective. Motion-activated floodlights at the entrance(s) to your garage can also discourage thieves.

Be Creative

Anything unexpected can stop a thief cold. I mentioned pulling the main or ignition fuse when you park. I knew someone who discovered that a faceshield stored under his seat got sucked into the intake for the airbox at large throttle openings. He promptly made a plug that he kept under the seat and stuck in the air intake when he parked his bike. It wouldn't run above idle with it installed. Another wired a hidden two-way switch into his starter button; when he parked, he flipped it so that pushing the starter button started the horn honking, and it wouldn't stop until he turned it off. A third reconfigured his petcock handle so that when off, it appeared to be on reserve. There are a variety of creative things you can do to wiring, choke controls, and other parts to confuse ride-away thieves. Imagine a clutch that won't engage, a centerstand that doesn't retract or no shift lever there to select a gear.

Your home garage can provide all sorts of discouraging surprises. A long-time neighbor finally confided his anti-theft secret to me after he'd foiled a break-in. He simply ran a black-thread trip-wire just inside the only entrance to his garage. If pulled, it set off a mousetrap, which closed a circuit with a car battery, a horn and a turn-signal flasher. The racket was tremendous, and the price was small. I talked to him recently; his current project at his new place to protect his small fleet of bikes includes not only an alarm but a stout "kid killer" (his words) garage door that slams shut and can only be unlocked from the outside. He plans to catch the next thief and hand him over to the cops. (I suggested adding pepper spray to the system to make them thoroughly unhappy during their stay.)

One owner tied a thread from his bike to a pile of bottles in his garage. He reasoned that people will ignore an alarm, but not the sound violence of breaking glass. It worked.

Communal garages, such as those in apartment complexes, provide a challenge. Lots of people see your bike, and finding something to secure it to may be difficult. However, you should negotiate a spot where you can lock to a pillar or pipe A cover helps, and one that locks around the bikes and prevents passers-by from discerning what's inside may help. You can buy storage shelters or make one out of a framework of light wood and heavy plastic, fabric or wood. You can also resort to disguise. A cover that says "BMW" is probably less likely to attract the interest of thieves than one that says "Harley." Just make sure nothing peeks out to give you away. A tattered cover also suggests that's what's beneath has little value. Use a car to block access to you bike (those things have to have some useful function.)

And don't forget simple things. When your ride to a restaurant, park where you can see the bike. Parking where the bike is hard to move will tell you when your bike is being test-sat and when someone is actually trying to steal it. Heading into a downhill parking spot may require an effort when you leave, but will also delay the thief and make it obvious what his intentions are.

Recovery

Many bikes come back after being stolen, though they are usually the worse for wear. (We heard of one rider who recovered his bike with several problems repaired, however.) A smashed ignition lock is a given, and they are often crashed. If a professional gets it, your chances of recovery are sharply reduced, though there are a few things you can do.

The simplest is to mark your driver's license number (which we are told is more accessible to police than your social security number) on out-of-the-way places of various components--the backs of covers, under the seat, the dipstick, etc. If police bust a bike-theft ring, they may able to identify your bike even if the VIN is gone. One rider got his bike back because he photocopied the registration and rolled the copy up inside the handlebar. You put the same thing in the toolbag, in the headlight shell or under some cover. At the least, you might help put the thieves in prison.

Vehicle-tracking systems, like the Lojack, can be applied to some motorcycles, depending on where you live and what sort of space your bike has to hide the electronics. Cruisers with saddlebags are candidates for such systems.

If your bike is rare, your community small or your luck and perseverance strong, you might even run it down yourself. We know of one rider who heard of a rare model just like his recently stolen one for sale. When he went to look at it, he discovered it was his. He haggled convincingly, went to the car "to get the money" for a deposit and marked the bills, went "to get the rest of the money" and came back with the police. He got his machine and his "deposit" back and sent the thief to jail.

The most important aspect of an anti-theft system is to use it. Even that separate fork lock provides a significant deterrent to a casual thief, and the addition of a simple disc lock stops him cold. Even well-equipped gangs of thieves might pass over a cable-locked bike for something less protected. And, of course, if they don't know it's there, they won't bother it at all.

An effective anti-theft system can be very unsatisfying -- because you don't know that it has worked. You may never see the guy eyeing your bike or find evidence that someone made a play for it and discovered it was too hard to steal. You may pass off an alarm's signal as a misfire because the would-be new owner was out of sight when you got there. Don't let your guard down.

For more articles on how to maintain and modify your motorcycle, see the Tech section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

_A solid cable lock, such as this Cobralinks or a Kryptonite, is a good all-around theft-deterrant, if you have room to take it with you.__
Covering your bike make it less obvious what it is and adds a minor barrier to theft.
You might suspect that there is safety in numbers at a motorcycle event, but thieves attend them with shopping lists. You can protect your bike by making it harder to steal than another one just like it.
Even an inexpensive padlock snapped to the wheel, disc or chain can deter a would-be thief. Just be sure that you have a system to remind you to remove it before you try to ride away.
Alarms are available with all sorts of security and convenience features.
Some campers tie one or more of the lines supporting a tent to their bike. If someone truies to steal the bike, the tent wiggles and falls down. The thief also has to be very close to them.
The oldest anti-theft strategy in the world is to park your bike where you can see it, such as in front of the window at a restaurant.