British Columbia

Vicious cycle: Alleged 'chop shops' flourish as bike thefts rise in parts of Vancouver

Are bike "chop shops" operating openly on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside? Or are they simply bike repair shops for DTES residents, as their operators claim? CBC News looks into the suspected fencing operations, to try to find out what happens to the 2,100-plus bikes officially reported stolen in Vancouver each year.

‘Any bike out there will be stolen eventually’: Why police can't act and what you can do to thwart thieves

Jordan, 30, says he's fixing bikes for fellow Vancouver DTES residents, not dealing in stolen bikes and running a chop shop. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Bike mechanic Tom Riley says he can't believe how bold bicycle thieves have become in Vancouver —  and how suspected bike "chop shops" have been allowed to operate openly on street corners and nestled under overpasses on the Downtown Eastside.

He's not alone.

Online forums have been buzzing about it; posters complaining bikes are being stolen, then bought for a few dollars by the alleged chop shops, where they're reassembled into untraceable "frankenbikes" sold online or on the street.

"I think it's disgraceful," says Riley. "When you see people with a shopping trolley full of bikes, maybe 10 or 15 bikes that are clearly not theirs, I think police should jump on that."

Riley, working for Shift Delivery, has just recovered one of the company's distinctive cargo tricycles at the corner of Union and Columbia.

It was stolen moments earlier, when its driver stepped into a downtown business.

Tom Riley, a mechanic for Shift Delivery, stands with a cargo tricycle stolen just moments before and recovered near Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Passersby spotted the thief trying to hide the specialized work trike in bushes in nearby False Creek —  and called police. Riley says the spooked thief then stole a child's bike and made his getaway.

On Reddit, people have been expressing their outrage over bike thefts and alleged fencing operations for months.

A sample of the thousands of posts on Reddit and other social media complaining about suspected bike chop shops operating openly in Vancouver. (Reddit)

Vancouver police say in most cases it's impossible to prove a bike is stolen, because owners don't take basic steps to protect their property.

While the force says bicycle thefts in the city are actually down slightly, new stats provided to CBC News show some neighbourhoods have seen massive increases.

It doesn't take long to find suspected bike chop shops in Canada's poorest neighbourhood — and to spot a possible new tactic to shut them down.

'I'm a hobbyist'

"Nice guy Jordan" isn't living up to his Downtown Eastside (DTES) nickname as he grudgingly packs up his make-shift bike shop.

A Vancouver police officer has just ordered him to move a rack of a dozen bike frames, plus bins of tires and bike parts, out from under the Andy Livingston Park overpass on Carrall Street.

A rack holding a dozen bike frames sits partially covered under the Andy Livingston Park overpass on Carrall Street on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

But he's not being charged with operating a suspected chop shop. He's been told he has to move because he's blocking the bike path that runs along the sidewalk.

Jordan, 30, won't give his last name.

He denies he's running an illegal operation, instead insisting he simply repairs bikes for fellow DTES residents.

"I used to steal bikes, (but) there's no money in it," he says. "I don't try to make a profit off of them. I'm a hobbyist."

'Any bike ... will be stolen eventually'

Less than a kilometre away on Station street near Vancouver's Pacific Central railway station, a woman who calls herself Carrie is also upset and packing up.

Like Jordan, she won't give her last name. And she, too, has been told her shelter is blocking a sidewalk — this time, by a City of Vancouver work crew.

She's surrounded by bikes— one, a "Specialized Hardrock" mountain bike stripped down to its frame; original price about $500.

Carrie, centre top, packs up her belongings, including a half dozen bikes in various stages of repair. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

But it's hard to know with certainty if this is a chop shop.

Carrie says, "I collect most of this stuff because other people need it," but later adds: "People leave bikes unlocked, thinking that it'll be safe."

She complains she, too, has had bikes ripped off.

Carrie's bikes include a purple 'Specialized Hardrock' brand bike worth $500 new. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

"Any bike out there will be stolen eventually," she says. "The more expensive it is, the nicer it is, the more eyes are on it … it just takes the wrong person or the right person, walking by and (saying), 'Oh look!' and grab it."

2,100 bikes reported stolen: VPD

Vancouver police say overall, bike thefts have dropped in the city — by 14 per cent compared to the same period last year.

But the stats also show big spikes in certain neighbourhoods; a 44 per cent increase in thefts in West Point Grey, 67 per cent rise in Sunset, and a whopping 138 per cent jump in Hastings-Sunrise bordering the Downtown Eastside.

The VPD says more than 2,100 bikes were reported stolen last year. The unreported number is unknown.

So why not raid suspected chop shops?

"We have to act under the rule of law," says police spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard.

Jordan pushes a rolling train of bike frames, tires and parts after he was told to move by the Vancouver Police Department. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

"I would call it a challenge for us as investigators … If we can't prove that the bikes are stolen, we can't lay a charge," says Robillard.

He suggests owners use good locks, record bike serial numbers, engrave their driver's licence number on the frame, take photos of their bikes— and subscribe to "Project 529," a free app that alerts members close to where a bike is stolen —  so they can watch for it.

'Locks only keep honest people out'

But those in the know say many anti-theft tactics just won't work.

"Keep in mind, locks only keep honest people out," says Jordan. "I can take a U-bolt lock without anything but my bare hands and grab the frame and break it right off."

Jordan heads off for destinations unknown, after blocking the city bike path along Carrall street. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Carrie complains there are so many stolen bikes flooding the Downtown Eastside, their value is plummeting.

"A nice $2,000 bike, you'd be lucky to get $50 or $100 for it," she says. "I've had some really expensive bikes that I've paid 10 or 20 dollars for."

So how do chop shop operators make money?

"Go online and search for a buyer elsewhere," says Carrie. "Everybody's got their own hustle."

About the Author

Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.

With files from Ethan Sawyer

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