December 20, 2013

Don't Supply the Demand: Vet Your Seller

The Schwinn I bought from Michael Birnbaum
Everyone from whom I have ever even almost purchased a bike has been a journalist. There was Olga Khazan, who covers health for The Atlantic, whose email address still auto-completes in my gmail because of the correspondence we had years ago about a bike she was selling on Craigslist. And when in November 2010 I did ultimately buy a Craigslist ride, it was a white Schwinn Washington Post soon-to-be-Berlin-correspondent Michael Birnbaum was selling on behalf of his wife (or girlfriend—I forget which) who had gone to Germany ahead of him.

How do I know these sellers' occupations? Because I Googled them. Even back in 2010, when I'd never had a bike stolen (and had practically forgotten how to ride one), I knew that Craigslist was awash in stolen cycles. So as I perused the bikes-for-sale listings on the Washington, DC Craigslist, I tried to steer clear of stolen property and gauge the likelihood that the various sellers were thieves.

Easier said than done. At the time I assumed that anyone with multiple bikes for sale was a shady character. Now, though, I know that there are enthusiasts who rehab bikes for fun and could, conceivably, have a few ready for purchase at the same time. There are also those who own veritable stables of bikes and who might, to earn a few hundred bucks or free up some storage space (for the latest two-wheeled acquisition(s), perhaps?), look to unload a couple well-used rides at one go.

As a conscientious would-be purchaser of a used bike, you really have to play it by ear, trust your instincts, and, to the extent possible, vet your seller. Let's look at a couple ads, found on the Washington, DC Craigslist on December 19, 2013.

I'm not prepared to say for sure that this Cannondale is stolen, but I'd bet that it has not been well cared for. The ad shows no evidence of either knowledge of or love for the bicycle. The seller provides no details—the bike's size? hello?—and only a picture so blurry you can hardly read the brand name. And that crass appeal to last-minute Christmas consumerism... I'd pass this one by.

Check out the contrast:

This seller has not only lovingly posed the Spearfish, but also furnished a comprehensive rundown of its features. Note also that s/he cites a reason for giving up this "dream" of a ride. (In case the print's too small for you, the ad ends with "Upgrading to a carbon bike.") It's a credible explanation.

This sort of thoroughness and authenticity can be faked, of course, but the Spearfish seller also passed my second test. When I replied to the above ad asking what assurance the seller could give that s/he had acquired the bike legitimately, I got a link to where the seller bought the frame (supposedly, anyway), and this: "Other than that you'll probably have to take my word."

Not as doubt-dispelling as a sales receipt, perhaps, but I like what I didn't detect in the Spearfish seller's reply: offense. Here's how another seller responded when I asked how s/he came to possess the single bike wheel advertised on Craigslist: "I assume you have no intention of apologizing for insinuating that this wheel was stolen." 

Seems to me that a non-criminal would recognize the theft of bikes and bike parts as a problem and be grateful that at least some buyers do their part to avoid supporting it...

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