How we got back our stolen bike with an AirTag

On Thursday, April 2nd we had our first success story. A bicycle was stolen, retrieved undamaged and we were there live on the spot! But one after another…

by Hannah Rindfleisch

When Laura came to my office, I first thought she wanted to say goodbye, but she said completely upset: “My bike was stolen!”. She discovered the theft of her beloved bike around 4 pm. It had been parked all day in the bicycle parking lot in front of the office, a busy place. Now it was gone and only the lock was lying there. I immediately replied, “Laura, you got a WOO!”. She had already completely forgotten about it. She immediately ran to her iPhone. We opened the “Find My” app and saw the location of the bike about 7 km away. A location with exact street and house number that didn’t change. We were both excited.

Laura dialed 110 (the German number emergencies requiring the police) and the policeman collected her data and got the location of the bike via the phone. He said undercover policemen were coming by. We then set off to the location of the bike. The cab took 30 minutes through the evening rush hour. Laura kept her iPhone in her hand the whole time and we watched the position of the bike. The location did not change.

Once there, there was no police in sight. Directly in front of us: two very tall apartment buildings with quite a few floors. We immediately went in search of the bike.

“Laura’s iPhone 8 does not yet have “Precision Finding”, which only the newer iPhones (from iPhone 11 on) have.”

She was shown a radius of about 50 meters, a pin location on an adjacent street. The position of the last iPhone which had received a bluetooth signal from the AirTag on the bike. Laura looked there first, but her bike was nowhere to be seen. We started searching the entire outdoor area within the radius. While doing so, Laura activated the “Searching Items” function and held the iPhone in front of her. We walked around, held the iPhone up to vans and looked at bike racks. Laura had to activate the “Searching Items” function again and again, because this process was aborted after a while. In the meantime one hour had passed and her bike was not in sight. Through local residents we got access to the bike basement, but her bike was not there either.

Confidence was fading and we were about to give up. It frustrated us that no police had come. But we motivated each other, mustered our courage, and made one last attempt exactly in the building with the house number listed on the app. A resident let us into the somewhat 15-story building. It revealed a bare anonymous stairwell with two elevators. We went to the basement first. But the iPhone didn’t show anything. We went up the stairs and walked the on first floor from door to door. Nothing. On the second floor, suddenly there was a message that the AirTag was nearby. We were shocked and suddenly the confidence was there again. Unfortunately, the battery of the old iPhone 8 was now at 7%.

Laura’s friend came to support and had a powerbank with him. We showed him the location on the 2nd floor. Paul ran from door to door and suddenly he had connection to the AirTag at one apartment and could even play the signal, but nothing could be heard. We went up one floor to the same position and there it was, the beeping of the AirTag. We were so excited! Paul ran down all the other doors to make sure. Just this one door.

6:30pm: The police arrived after Paul called the police station in charge directly. The ability to explain exactly where the bike is hidden caught the attention by the police. The policemen arrived within minutes, took our personal data and of course wanted to see the suspicious apartment. We again triggered the beeping. They also clearly heard the sound signal. They verified that no signal was heard in any other apartment. They rang and knocked, without success. Nobody opened the door.

The police questioned residents and had the data of the tenant of the apartment checked. It was now no longer just about the theft of the bicycle, the suspicious person was of interest to the police because of far more offenses. Laura described her bicycle in detail.

“Luckily she had the invoice and frame number of the bike on her iPhone and showed them together with photos.”

By now it was 7:30 p.m. and dawn was already breaking. The police clarified whether they could gain access to the apartment with a search warrant. The public prosecutor’s office was informed and gave the permission after about 30min later. After also the permission came by the judge, the police could finally open the apartment.

We were happy, but also had a queasy feeling. What if we had been mistaken?

The policeman reassured us and said, “It’s certainly this one. I heard it too”.

The hallway filled with more and more police within a short time and one locksmith. We were told to hide in the stairwell.

“The rest happened very quickly. The lock was drilled out and the door was open.”

The theft was in the apartment the whole time and immediately stood in the doorway. We waited impatiently. After a while, one of the policemen said to the other, “Now let’s get the bikes out first”. We were so relieved! We had made it! There it was, Laura’s bike. Unharmed with WOO and AirTag. A second bike was standing next to it and the police also seized other bike parts.

We were happy, relieved and proud. Laura was allowed to take her bike with her. In the meantime it got dark. Several hours had passed since she had realized that her bike had been stolen. We couldn’t have done it without our efforts, but also not without the dedicated police officers. They took the perpetrator into custody and secured the apartment. The effort had paid off.

It is definitely possible to recover a bicycle after a theft, but it also requires dedication and a cool head. A building with about 15 floors and an iPhone 8 without “Precision Finding” is the worst case, but it worked. With the right approach, the time required for the search can also be greatly reduced. We have summarized a few tips below.

What is the best way to prepare for a theft?

Familiarize yourself with the “Find My” app and test the functions.
In case of theft, you will need the frame number, invoice and photos of your bike. You can take a photo of the invoice and store it on your phone, then you will always have it with you. If you bought the bike used, you will need a bill of sale. You must be able to prove that the bike is yours.

What do I do if my bike is stolen?

  • Never go in search of your bike alone. Pay attention to your safety.
  • Try to keep a cool head.
  • Be quick. The more time the thief has, the worse your chances are.
  • You need patience and perseverance. Do not lose courage. We keep our fingers crossed that you will be rewarded in the end.
  • If you are sure that your bike is in an apartment, please be careful when you trigger the sound signal of the AirTag. You may put yourself in danger and attract the thief’s attention.
  • Do not perform any recovery operations without the police. Do not ring the doorbell of the apartment you suspect alone!
  • In most cases, the police will come only after you have found out the exact location of your bike. Always call directly the responsible precinct. Do not dial 110, unless there is imminent danger.
  • If it can be clearly proven that your bike is in an apartment and no one opens the door, the police can apply for a search warrant. This is clarified by telephone via the public prosecutor’s office and via a judge. In our case, that worked.
  • If the door can’t be opened, you still have a chance. At some point, the thief will leave the apartment with your bike and then you have to take action.

Using the “Find My” app

Important: The location shown in the “Find My” app is not necessarily where your bike was last seen. It is the location of the iPhone that last received the Bluetooth signal from your AirTag. So it’s quite possible that the needle is pointing to the street while your bike is on the 2nd floor of the house in front of the street.

iPhone X, iPhone 8, iPhone 7 or other older iPhone models

  1. Open the “Find My” app and tap on the “Items” tab.
  2. Now you can see the location of your bike within a radius of about 100ft. The pin position shows the location where the last time a foreign iPhone tracked your AirTag. Again, this does not have to be the exact location of your bike! We thought that at first and assumed that the thief removed the holder and threw it into the bushes. This was not the case! Don’t search too long at this pin location. If you don’t see your bike directly, keep walking. You need to walk the entire perimeter. Activate the search function:
  3. Tap on “Identify Found Item”.
  4. Move around in a radius of about 50 meters.
  5. After a while, the search process will be aborted and the message “Item Not Found” will appear. Tap “ok” and start it again.
  6. If there is a building in the radius, walk down the staircase if possible. It is best to walk strategically from door to door. Keep calm and a clear head. Activate the search process again and again after it has been aborted.
  7. Don’t lose faith. Sooner or later, your iPhone will detect it.
  8. As soon as your bike is near, you will get the message “Item Nearby”.
  9. If you are very close to the bike, your iPhone will connect to the AirTag. Now you have the possibility to play the signal. Be careful not to put yourself in danger and attract the thief’s attention. Inform the police as soon as you can locate the thief.

“Precision Finding” on newer iPhones (11 and later)

  1. Open the “Find My” app and tap on the “Items” tab.
  2. Select the AirTag, and then tap “Find”.
  3. Follow the on-screen instructions. The iPhone will display the distance, direction, and route to the AirTag. Use this information to move towards the AirTag until you find your bike.

We hope, we could give you some helpful tipps. Fingers crossed, that you won’t come into a situation like this. You have also experienced such a story? Let us know!

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