It happens frequently. A bike that you are sure is the bike you had stolen shows up on listed on Craigslist, LetGo, OfferUp, Kijiji or some other online marketplace. Online marketplaces aren't regulated and have no obligations (unlike pawn shops) to keep records, verify buyers or sellers or provide information to police.
How do you get more information about the bike without tipping off the seller if it really is your bike and how do you get it back safely?
There's no perfect formula here, and spooking the seller is a real concern, as is your safety.
Here's a few tips that might help.
- Before contacting the seller, take a screenshot of the online ad and copy down any contact information available. The listing may disappear, so having a copy of the listing may be useful later.
- Ask the seller something innocuous / play a little dumb. "I'm looking to get some bikes for camping with my family without spending too much. My wife is 5'4" and in good shape, but hasn't ridden for years - would this be a good fit? Are there any maintenance issues (new tires?) that we'll need to deal with? When would be a good time to meet and test ride it, we live near Starbucks on Main and we could meet tomorrow around 6p?"
- Talk to your local police (ideally the officer that took your stolen bike police report), and let them know that you're engaging with the seller and that you'd like help setting up a sting. Any detail that you can point to that shows that there's a very very good chance its your bike will help.
For example, "We're hoping to setup a meet with the seller in the next day or two. In comparing the photos, the scratch on the downtube and the aftermarket saddle have us 90% convinced its hers. We haven't asked about serial number for fear of spooking the seller, but we do have a cell phone number for them - 555-xxx-xxxx". Showing that you've done your homework, that there's a good chance that it's yours and that you're engaged with the seller will generally help their desire to engage.
- Show some empathy with police. The nature of the job makes it very difficult to guarantee that "Officer Smith" will be able to meet at Starbucks at 4:15pm two days in advance to deal with a meeting that may or may not happen on a bike that may or may not be yours. Let them know that you appreciate that there are a lot of priorities and protocols and ask what legwork you can do or for suggestions to make it successful. Don't get discouraged if they tell you "call 911 fifteen minutes before the meeting and if we have a car, I'll instruct them to roll it". That's an "average" response and for a lot of good reasons.
- If the police cannot meet you and you choose to meet with the seller, be smart and vigilant.
- Meet somewhere public.
- Meet during the day light.
- Have at least two people at the meeting.
- Do a test ride around the block (and flip the bike for SN during the ride and photograph the SN and distinguishing features).
- Try and get a photograph of the seller (maybe via a third person).
- Stay in character - keep playing dumb even if you're a bike expert - by asking more dumb questions or talk about your (fake) hunt for a bike for yourself.
- Resist the urge of playing detective and trying to "figure the guy out".
- Often, police (#3 above) will tell you to call 911 if you can confirm the SN and will roll someone immediately at that point if they couldn't arrange beforehand (assuming available). Stall by asking questions, negotiating and having one of you take a trip to the cash machine..
Above all else, remember two things. 1) the seller likely has less to lose than you do and, if a criminal, may resort to violence, 2) it's not worth getting anyone hurt over.