Sabotaging Bicycle Racks

This is the first time I've heard of this clever hack. Bicycle thieves saw through a bicycle rack and then tape it back together, so unsuspecting people chain their bikes to them.

Posted on March 4, 2016 at 12:02 PM • 42 Comments

Comments

Marcos El MaloMarch 4, 2016 12:17 PM

This is pretty brilliant. I imagine that as the bicycling public catches on (as well as competing bike thieves), this enterprising hardware hackers can fabricate bike racks (that they can unlock) and place them in strategic locations.

WilliamMarch 4, 2016 1:56 PM

Years ago, I saw a report where thieves were unbolting sign posts from their mounts so they could be slipped the post could be slipped out easily. When an unsuspecting cyclist locked their bike to it, it could easily be stolen.

Impossibly StupidMarch 4, 2016 1:58 PM

Seems like a lot of exposed prep work for a questionable payoff. And then what do they do? Sit around waiting for a sufficiently valuable bike to be locked up to it, or swing around numerous times over the day(s) to see if it's ripe enough yet? Oh, bother!

Also seems like a ready-baked recipe for getting nabbed by "returning to the scene of the crime". I even recall having seen on Cops (or some similar show) a bait bike that was worth enough money to turn a similar theft into a felony. From a risk/reward standpoint, I'd bet this isn't going to become a common threat.

CallMeLateForSupperMarch 4, 2016 2:08 PM

Heard about this recently, was surprised too. Those gosh darn terrorists will stop at nothing!

Another not-obviously-insecure "hitch-up" is the multiple-bike rack constructed of thin-wall steel tubing. Stores desiring to be bike-friendly place these. Even racks that accommodate 5-8 bikes and look heavy, are not, and rarely are they themselves secured.

My preferred hitch-up is pipes on natural gas meters, but trees and hurricane fences are easier to find.

@Bruce
I looked up Resilient's location on Google Earth today. No bike racks in evidence. :-) Probably just as well if Alewife Brook Pkwy. and Rt. 2 are still the shooting galleries they were in the 70's (when I was there).

Falk D.March 4, 2016 2:40 PM

"they" stole a rack with four bikes on it, when i was a student in the 90s. One of The bikes was the first bike i really liked for over ten years. ...holes, really. Since then i check the racks i'm attaching my bikes to. I use a U-lock, a 1/2" strong cable and a motion triggered alarm, when i head to work. I didn't lose any more bikes in the City but i didn't save my bikes that were stolen out of the box at the parking lot of my flat last year. So i am using motion triggered alarms at work and am carrying the expensive bikes to my balcony which is kind of sucking.
Police can find about 3% of stolen bikes in Hamburg, Germany. Most of them are found in the harbour. Yes they are wer, then. The vast majority gets transported to southeast europe, disassembled and sold on ebay. You can find 7400 dura ace parts on ebay at any time, with sellers based in Romania, Albania or Bulgaria, which were behind the curtain when those parts were sold. You always see only parts from there, never frames.

Clive RobinsonMarch 4, 2016 2:50 PM

@ Bruce,

This is the first time I've heard of this clever hack.

I can give you another one. In central London a some years ago some enterprising soul made bike rack using recycled 2inch scafolding pipes and three way clamps held tight with hex head bolts. People locked their bikes up then someone came along loosened the hex heads, lifted out the scaf pipe out of the clamps and the bike locks, put the pipe back in the clamps tightend the bolts and walked away with the bike.

Apparently quite a few bikes disappeared before somebody clocked the design fault...

MartinMarch 4, 2016 3:22 PM

This reminds me of reports of bogus ATM installations -- used to harvest card numbers and PIN numbers.

dragonfrogMarch 4, 2016 4:05 PM

Thieves did this occasionally at my university two decades ago, and frequently at the university where my wife did her grad work a decade ago.

@Impossibly Stupid - stealing a bike is going to require standing by the bike rack cutting through something either way.

This approach lets you separate the bike theft from the conspicuous cutting action, doing each when it's individually convenient - do you stand by the rack in the daytime, when all the good bikes are there but there's also lots of foot traffic, cutting through one U-lock per bike that you steal? Or do you stand by the rack at three on a Tuesday morning when the campus is deserted but anyone with a nice bike has taken it home, cut through the rack just once for potentially multiple bike thefts, and keep your daytime presence by the rack down to mere seconds per bike you steal?

Dirk PraetMarch 5, 2016 7:03 AM

A couple of years ago, my home town of Antwerp started deploying bike racks all over the place in a continued effort to promote bicycles as a healthy and environmentally friendly means of urban transportation. Unfortunately, the company the City Council awarded the contract to were a bunch of incompentent douchebags whose overly simple rack design contained a fundamental flaw that didn't even require tools or skills to exploit.

Countless numbers of bikes got easily stolen as demonstrated in this here video.

Impossibly StupidMarch 5, 2016 12:50 PM

@dragonfrog

Oh, I get the value of scheduling the cutting for a time when you're less likely to be caught doing it. Everything after that, though, seems to be of questionable economics to me. Surely there are better ways of making a couple hundred bucks than going out in the middle of the night to vandalize a random rack and then come back during the day hoping to have someone lock up something worth more than a 20 year old Huffy. The only way this attack makes much sense is if you target specific bikes of high value that are regularly locked up to the same rack. And you still expose yourself quite a bit by choreographing the theft in advance.

albertMarch 5, 2016 1:46 PM

This is so 90's, for the reasons cited.

There is an incredibly simple way to steal any bike, from any rack, with any kind of lock.

Anyone care to hazard a guess?

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Gerard van VoorenMarch 5, 2016 3:33 PM

@ albert,

Curiosity killed the cat. I am not a cat but if you are willing to enlighten us I won't stop you.

BuckMarch 5, 2016 3:50 PM

Simple bike theft for dummies:

  • Acquire pipe-wrench and ski-mask
  • Don ski-mask and hide in the bushes near a bike rack
  • Wait until someone comes along with a nice looking bike
  • While the biker is fiddling with the lock, jump out and firmly apply the pipe-wrench to the base of his skull.
  • Abscond with your new bike and sell the parts without serial numbers; melt the rest down and sell it as scrap.

Clive RobinsonMarch 5, 2016 6:04 PM

@ Albert, (Gerard),

There is an incredibly simple way to steal any bike, from any rack, with any kind of lock.

Like Gerard I'll bite ;-)

My first guess would be "steal the rack" and remove the bike at your leisure, but that does not quite fit your statment of "from any rack" it kind of implies you leave the rack in situ.

I have a couple of other ideas, but they are very much like the old joke about a smuggler who was never caught.

"Every morning the old man would turn up at the border and que with his train of donkeys with laden paniers to cross over. And each day he and his donkeys would be thoroughly checked, and he would always joke with the inspectors 'You think I am a smuggler so you search and search, but you never find anything so what am I smuggling' he'd laugh and tap the side of his nose with his index finger in a very conspititorial way. In the evening back he would come with the donkeys with empty paniers, he'd smile chuckle and tap the side of his nose. This went on for years, then one day the old man did not turn up, most of the inspectors breathed a sigh of relief and fatalisticaly shrugged their shoulders and said "tommorow, yes tommorow he will be back to tap his nose you'll see". But a few days went by and still the old man did not turn up, and the Captain of the inspectors started to worry over the old man, like a favorite itch that had stoped. He made enquiries and found where the old man lived and went around to see how he was. The old man's wife opened the door, and after a few words showed the Captain to the old man ill on his bed. The old man saw the Captain and a little of the fire came back in his pain wracked eyes, and he laughed and coughed and said 'Captain, I'm old and nearly gone, but still you wonder what it is that I could be smuggling, yes?' The Captain asured the old man that although it was a puzzle for all the inspector's, that was not why he was there, he was concerned for the old man, and had brought wine for his health. Anyway the old man got worse and the Captain visited daily, but eventually the illness got the better of the old man and he died. The Captain went to the funeral and even said a few words at the service and put a stone on the grave. As the Captain was leaving the old man's daughter stopped him and passed over an envelope and said the old man wanted the Captain to have a last drink with him as he read the letter. The Captain went home and got out a good wine and pourd two glasses and sat down and opened the letter and read what the old man had written whilst sipping the wine. The letter was full of little stories about times past and the Captain smiled at the shared memories at last he reached the final paragraph which said 'Now my old friend I must confess, yes I was a smuggler although you and your inspectors searched high and low you never found what was in plain sight, each day I went with my train of donkeys, each day I came back with five less'. The Captain realised it was so, smiled and raised his glass to bid the old man a fond farewell and easy access through the gates of heaven."

WaelMarch 5, 2016 9:11 PM

@Buck,

Simple bike theft for dummies:

The kick-ass guide for the complete moron:

  • If the lock is a MasterLock U-Lock, do this
  • If it's a combination lock, follow this process
  • Pad lock? Not a problem... cool it a bit, then bust it open.
  • If all else fails, design your own lock with a backdoor. A master combination that will open any lock. It could be a backdoor mapping between the serial number of the lock and a truncated n-iterations of SHA2 of the serial number.
  • Or use one of these bad boys

For defense, use a Peweg chain similar material for the rack, chain, and lock!

Marcos El MaloMarch 5, 2016 9:42 PM

@impossibly Stupid
I believe you misunderstand a few things.
1) How quickly professional bike thieves work.
2) the tools they have access to, which aids the speed of the work
3) the cost of bicycles, some of which get into the thousands.

I'm sure if you think about 1) & 2) you'll realize how it might only take under a minute to steal the bike, then a few minutes to ride or walk the bike to the awaiting van.

3) I don't know how expensive the very top end is, but I've heard stories of your rich hipsters having $2000-5000 bikes stolen. Old rich wannabe hipsters, too. There's quite a bicycling scene in Los Angeles, San Francisco, (the two towns I'm aware of) and I'm sure many other cities across the U.S. Some think they are political by the very act of pedaling a bike and can be pretty obnoxious.

rMarch 6, 2016 1:36 AM

this is something moped riders should be aware of, thanks for shaking the tree of paranoia for us all.

not that leaving a moped attached to anything less than a tree is a good idea anyways...

Impossibly StupidMarch 6, 2016 9:52 AM

@Marcos El Malo

No, I'm not misunderstanding anything. I'm talking specifically about how the attack being discussed here plays out. There is *no* way it would take less than a minute to cut the rack, tape it up, and then have someone roll up to be the unwitting victim. And the fact that expensive bikes exist (which I pointed out in my initial post) doesn't change the fact that it's pure chance what kind of bike will eventually get locked to the compromised rack (unless they take some time to case the area, representing further cost and exposure).

I think what's more likely the case here is that a thief cut the rack to steal a specific bike that was locked to it. Then either they taped it up to try a double-dip, or the owner of the rack taped it up because it looked bad. That makes the next bike more a theft of opportunity than anything they are investing in stealing. It's a bonus. *Then* the economics make sense.

albertMarch 6, 2016 11:47 AM

OK, here it is:

Liquid nitrogen. Pour it on the lock, strike, rinse, repeat. Usually works the first time, and it takes seconds to do.

Disclaimer: I haven't tried this.

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ianfMarch 6, 2016 12:12 PM


Yeah, liquid nitrogen, get it at any gas station. Carry the bottle to the bike rack, kiss your fingers goodbye.

The deep-freezing trick supposedly works with freon (which is available in pressurized cans for certain industrial applications), but I've never seen it IRL applied to large cross section hardened bike locks.

Dirk PraetMarch 6, 2016 12:13 PM

@ Wael, @ Buck

For defense, use a Peweg chain similar material for the rack, chain, and lock!

That's the sort of chain I use for my bike. Plus a wheel lock and a 2nd key lock. Makes potential thieves give up immediately and turn their attention to lower hanging fruit. I also firmly believe in physical violence as a deterrent as bike theft in practice never carries any consequences over here. LEO's in general couldn't care less because even if a thief gets caught he'll never go to jail anyway and fines are never collected either.

I may have told this story before on this blog, but at some point our ice skating rink got regularly hit by a gang of professional thieves that ran off with scores of bikes. Until one evening they got caught red-handed and beaten half-dead by some members of the ice hockey team. The pickup truck they used to load the bikes on was completely thrashed. The perps were all hospitalised and never seen or heard of again. No charges were ever filed, and for years no bike got stolen any more there.

@ Marcos El Malo

I don't know how expensive the very top end is, but I've heard stories of your rich hipsters having $2000-5000 bikes stolen.

We've got a lot of those bikes here. Belgium is a real biking country and cyclism the national sport, especially in Flandres. A while ago, federal police and national tv formally issued warnings to cycling clubs and enthusiasts to stop posting pictures of their expensive bikes on social media like Facebook following a dramatic surge in what were apparently targeted burglaries in search thereof.

Gerard van VoorenMarch 6, 2016 12:43 PM

Talking about locks. Today the key broke inside the lock of my front door. No kidding. Luckily the door was still open. Panic. So I made a few phone calls, with the idea of having my lock being replaced. That is rather cost worthy because all the locks (four of them) have the same key and the locks are rather expensive with safety hooks and all. Long story short, someone told me to use a piece of iron wire to push the broken key out from the other side, but where to get iron wire? So first I used a piece of solder. Err wrong material. It folded up and I had to pull it out very carefully otherwise it could break. Then I straighten a paper clip and presto, the key came out a bit and with pincers I pulled it out. Phew!

BuckMarch 6, 2016 12:58 PM

@Wael

Wow, that U-Lock's security is far more pitiful than it would appear! While I would never turn down an opportunity to have some fun with some liquid N2, a more accessible solution against a padlock requires only an aluminum can and about 15 seconds! Designing your own back-doored lock sounds like a lot of fun, but the easiest way to steal bikes is to own a bike factory. :-P

The Peweg chain still won't defend you from my wrench attack though... Here's a possible defense for that one.

P.S.: The description of your Peweg video includes the phrase:
"protected by the 2nd amendment, the freedom of speech"
Not sure if that was intentional or not, but I LOL'd either way :-D

WaelMarch 6, 2016 1:17 PM

@Dirk Praet,

If ever you're in Brussels...

I'll keep that in mind! Until then, luckily, they offer WEB ecommerce orders with the strange exception of Corné Port Royal that only services Europe! They don't ship to the US, I guess.

asking both for the exact location of the nuclear wessels, and with a thick Arab accent.

That would be suicidal! I'd rather use a Russian accent for that, especially if I say "wessels". One of the funnier scenes along with what @Clive Robinson mentioned.

@Thoth,

The nationalistic approach is double edged

Their stance is justifiable. German quality is well-known.

WaelMarch 6, 2016 2:32 PM

@Buck,

The Peweg chain still won't defend you from my wrench attack though

It's the harsh counterpart of Rubber Hose Cryptanalysis. Happens when both the device and user are under control of the attacker. It's one weakness of biometrics, as the user can be forced to scan digit or retina.

"protected by the 2nd amendment, the freedom of speech" Not sure if that was intentional or not...

Unintentional!

Dirk PraetMarch 6, 2016 2:54 PM

@ Gerard van Vooren

Then I straighten a paper clip and presto, the key came out a bit and with pincers I pulled it out.

Good work. May I also suggest picking up one of these handy and very affordable tool kits ? Every security professional needs one.

WaelMarch 6, 2016 4:17 PM

@Buck,

I didn't upload it. Thought you were asking if I intentionally picked the video for that reason. Slight misunderstanding

Clive RobinsonMarch 6, 2016 5:19 PM

@ Gerard van Vooren,

Long story short, someone told me to use a piece of iron wire to push the broken key out from the other side

That tells me what the general sort of lock and key it is ;-)

On a historical security note for a couple of centuries because doors had gaps at the bottom to let air in because of open fires burglars would first slide a paper etc under the door beneth the lock. So not only did the key drop more quietly, it could also be pulled back under the door with the key on it. Which is one of the reasons people put bolts on the inside of their doors. As well as putting keys on rings on chains attached to belts so keys could not be left in locks or around where they could be taken or impressioned.

During both WWI and II advice of the opposite nature was given to officers and agents who stayed in hotels. Because of master keys and the fact hotels rarely put bolts on doors, they were told to put the key in the lock and turn it part way so it could not be pushed out. However as is normal with such things a toolmaker designed a pair of hardend steel needle nose pliers that would grip the end of the key and allow it to be turned so it would drop out or actually be used to unlock the door from the outside.

For those who like movies watch "How to steal a million" it's a rather plesant little Audrey Hepburn film. However it's worth watching for how they got around the Museum Security to "steal the Venus". Look on it as a "chick flic comedy" with a "security message" for the "significant others", or just flop back with a big bowl of Popcorn and enjoy it.

dragonfrogMarch 7, 2016 9:02 AM

@Impossibly Stupid

I quite agree that bike theft seems an economically marginal way to earn an income, especially given the risk exposure that goes with it. I've had a couple of bikes stolen - old bikes that I bought for under $100 and fixed up (call the value of parts and my labour another $100), so I can't imagine the thief would have gotten more than about $40 for it.

And yet for that tiny gain, they exposed themselves to risk of arrest. Most recently, they stole the bike directly across the alley from the main police headquarters, and were spotted in the act by a cop looking out a third floor window, but were gone by the time the cop ran down the stairs and outside.

But I think bike thieves already exist in economic marginality - perhaps with drug habits, criminal records, or other issues that make any kind of regular employment impossible. Whatever the combination of factors is, it's enough that you can't trust a cable lock for even the crappiest of bikes where I live.

paulMarch 7, 2016 9:27 AM

@dragonfrog:

It's the same thing (ostensibly) with street-level drug dealers. But the upper levels of the chain (ahem) where the bikes get resold or parted out, can do fairly well, and in areas where there are not a lot of job opportunities (or only job opportunities for people with a certain level of training/certification) the black market does fine.

Also, although the violent version of bike theft works, it's may more likely (as with carjacking) to attract serious attention from the authorities.

TatütataMarch 7, 2016 9:35 AM

Before I attach my bike to a signpost I always give it a shake to see if it can be pulled out of the ground. Even if no saboteurs were involved, you will find a good proportion of these which are loose.

But why even bother prepare the heist? People don't really take notice of people hacking away at bikes. I once helped a friend cut a bike lock [the bike was his, and he had retrieved the sales receipt just in case] on a rather busy street, and NO ONE PAID ANY ATTENTION.

At least car alarms randomly going off have an annoyance factor, but third parties are more concerned about recovering their peace and quiet than to go chase an hypohetical thief. [Did you ever witness a car alarm going off for the real reason? I never did].

The article reminded me of another mishap.

A bike was stolen right on my porch at home by a particularly brazen thief.

Bike A was secured to the railing with a couple of U-locks.

Bike B was attached to bike A using a U-lock joining the frames. I became casual over time, and neglected to close the wheel lock.

The thief came at four AM, and used a pipe cutter on bike A to free bike B. I could tell the approximate time, as my bedroom window directly overlooked the bikes, and perceived the racket in my half-sleep.

Result: one ruined bike, and one nicked bike.

I really loved that bike B. My dear Bike, wherever you are, if you can read me, I miss you terribly.

WaelMarch 7, 2016 9:46 AM

@Tatütata,

I really loved that bike B. My dear Bike, wherever you are, if you can read me, I miss you terribly.

Bike B: If you had me "IoT enabled", I would have answered you directly instead of channeling through this media! But I miss you, too. They are treating me well.

There is another idea :)

albertMarch 7, 2016 10:29 AM

@ianf,

Obviously, some safety precautions are necessary, but, except for the hammer blow, it's fast and very quiet. LN isn't that hard to get nowadays. There's a restaurant around here that uses it in preparing their desserts. Colleges and universities usually have some, as well as many industrial entities. It's cheap, but probably not worth the trouble, except for pros. Sucker poles (and now, sucker racks:) are for amateurs. Yeah, it doesn't matter who stole your favorite bike ;(

Here's another method: a Dremel with a thin cutoff wheel. High-speed abrasive wheels will cut any alloy. Cutting time depends on the thickness of the steel, but you're unless working at a school for the deaf, forget it. They scream like a banshee! Very effective for legitimate uses though.

They used to make oxy/gas torches that fit in your pocket.....

So let us raise our Dewar's in a toast to criminal technology!

(In a most appropriate forum)

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hufyMarch 7, 2016 12:58 PM

In college I came to the conclusion that there was no possible way to securely lock a bike if someone decided to steal it, so I commuted on an old ugly rusted up huffy girl's bike I saved from the dump. I kept the chain oiled and it worked fine in the single gear I hard adjusted it to run in. In 4 years I never locked it up. One night my apartment complex got hit and all the bikes, about a dozen, were stolen except for mine, which made it about 15 feet from the rack before getting rejected by the thieves. As far as easy money goes, bike theft pays. Only solution it to remove the value of the bike.

Gerard van VoorenMarch 7, 2016 2:47 PM

@ Albert,

Liquid nitrogen.

Yes it will probably work and students love this stuff. But the practical use (also looking at who usually steal bicycles) is limited at best.

@ Clive

It's an ordinary modern (certified) lock. Nice story though and I will look that movie. I always liked Audrey Hepburn.

@ Dirk Praet

Nice set of tools. Note however that I am an engineer, not a security professional ;-)
(I should have known better not to use solder...)

MattMarch 7, 2016 4:23 PM

@dragonfrog
"I quite agree that bike theft seems an economically marginal way to earn an income"

I was talking to a cop from the squad tackling cycle theft in London who said that if you plot the punishment for crimes vs the monetary rewards, they should fall on a straight line (presumably adjusted for risk of apprehension), but that cycle theft falls way below the line, in other words, a) the UK (London?) courts have not adjusted penalties upwards to account for the high value of bikes and b) you'll get nailed harder for shoplifting or other theft of equivalent value.

albertMarch 8, 2016 12:25 PM

@Matt,
Who suffers when a store is robbed? Not the sales folk. The owners. And their insurance company. The higher-end stores have corresponding more clout with the cops.

Who suffers when an individuals bike is stolen? Some random goober, who no one gives a schitt about.

Now, if you robbed a bike shop....

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