Police turning to social media to track down stolen bikes

A scan of the Stolen Bikes Ottawa Facebook page shows a number of posts where Ottawa police have located a stolen bike and returned it to its rightful owner. That's no accident.

Officers scanning Facebook, anti-theft database to reunite owners with swiped bicycles

Cindy MacBride figured she’d never get her stolen bike back. Then an Ottawa police officer who had read her Facebook post spotted it and returned it to her. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

When Cindy MacBride realized her backyard shed had been broken into and thieves had made off with her and her husband's bikes, she felt both angry and hopeless.

"This is my preferred mode of transportation. This is how I get around town," said the Centretown resident. "I honestly never thought I'd see the bike again."

In addition to filing a police report, MacBride posted a photo and description of her bike on the Facebook page Stolen Bikes Ottawa, and on an anti-bike theft database and app called Project 529.

Const. Ryan Cuthbert monitors Stolen Bikes Ottawa on Facebook and the bike registry Project 529, hoping to spot stolen bikes as he patrols Ottawa's downtown. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

A few days after it was stolen, Const. Ryan Cuthbert, who'd seen MacBride's Facebook post, spotted her bike in downtown Ottawa, loaded it into the back of his cruiser and delivered it to her home.

"I'm truly touched that he basically is keeping an eye out for the community, for everyone's bikes, and actually took the time to verify it was mine and then drop it off to me," said MacBride.

Police taking proactive approach

A scan of the Stolen Bikes Ottawa Facebook page shows a number of posts where Ottawa police officers have located a stolen bike and reunited it with its owner.

"I'm a big biker myself, so I'd be very thankful if I was able to have my bike returned to me within hours or days of it being stolen," said Cuthbert.

Ottawa police say an initiative by several officers to proactively scan social media and Project 529 has resulted in more retrievals.

Project 529, launched in 2019, allows bike owners to register their bike with an online database for free. If their bike is stolen, they can send an alert to nearby app users, including participating police officers.

Const. Rich Zulys has been encouraging more colleagues to scan stolen bike reports on social media and Project 529. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Const. Rich Zulys, who works alongside Const. Cuthbert in downtown Ottawa, said whenever possible he starts his shift by scanning the alerts on Project 529 and Stolen Bikes Ottawa, then he keeps an eye out during his patrols.

"It's a very quick way for our officers to identify bicycles as having been stolen, and often it's easy for the citizen, if they're already on the application, to [report their bike] stolen. It's a simple click," said Zulys.

Statistics tabulated by Ottawa police since the official launch of Project 529 reveal that of the 154 bikes reported stolen on the app, police were able to reunite 61 with their owners. That's a 39 per cent success rate.

"When we started seeing these successes, we started trying to get other officers on board," said Zulys.

Ottawa police turn to social media for help returning stolen bicycles

2 years ago
Duration 0:45
Ottawa police are trying a new method of tracking down stolen bikes — by monitoring social media posts from upset owners. Centretown resident Cindy MacBride posted news of her stolen bike on Facebook, which led to an officer spotting it and returning it to her.

That good news for victims of bike theft comes at a time when bike thieves are becoming more active and taking more risks, Zulys said.

"We started noticing an increase in calls for break and enters to people's sheds and garages all over Centretown and the downtown area," he said.

That seems logical since fewer people are riding their bikes to work or school during COVID-19, and it comes as no surprise to MacBride, who's now been the victim of shed break-ins twice in the past six months.

"We've put up multiple security cameras, we've got motion-sensored lights, we've got a gate blocking access to our garage and backyard, so we thought we had enough, but apparently not," said MacBride, whose husband has yet to find his stolen bike.

Ottawa police say bike thefts are on the rise, and the thieve are becoming more brazen. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Ottawa police advise residents not to leave their blue recycling bins in their backyards as thieves caught venturing there are likely to say they were simply looking for empties to collect.

Police recommend you store your bike indoors, especially if it's very valuable, and make sure you register it with Project 529 to save you time if it's ever stolen.


Giacomo Panico

CBC Reporter and Host

You can reach Giacomo by email

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