Around 30,000 motorbikes are stolen each year, with only 14% ever recovered. Claire Veares investigates how you can improve the chances of hanging on to your wheels.

A man dressed in bike leathers standing next to a motorcycle with a screaming alarm is unlikely to attract much attention. Any passer-by is likely to assume the man owns the bike and has set the alarm off accidentally.

Bike thieves know this and will happily work away at someone else's machine, knowing they are unlikely to be challenged. Once the thief can move the bike, he or she can either ride it off or, an old favourite, dump it in the back of a van and drive off with it.

Experienced thieves can liberate a bike in as little as 20 seconds. If the machine has been stolen to order, its identity will be changed before it is resold. Or, more likely, it will be broken down into parts and then sold on as spares.

Around 30,000 bikes are stolen a year at a rate of one every 16 minutes and more than 100,000 stolen bikes are still missing, according to the Motorcycle Industry Association. Recovery rates for bikes are low - around 14%, compared with 60% for cars.

Ken German, of the stolen vehicle branch of the Metropolitan Police's Serious Crime Unit, says the recovery figures are higher, but once the engine and frame numbers have been tampered with it is difficult to trace the bike back to its original owner.

Most of the bikes that are not recovered end their lives as parts of other bikes. German says this is the fate of about 70% of stolen bikes. The parts will either be sold through breakers' yards or through small ads in local newspapers or the motorcycle press.

Scrapyards also get their supplies from other sources. Insurance companies are allowed to sell damaged bikes to scrapyards, complete with documentation.

Norwich Union has the lion's share of the motorbike insurance market. A spokeswoman for the company says it receives 9,000 damage claims a year: "3,000 of these are a total loss - they go for salvage."

Traditionally, insurance companies were not too fussy about where salvage bikes went. But many of the scrapped bikes ended up helping stolen bikes back onto the road by giving them new identities (the scrapped frame and engine numbers would be given to the stolen bike).

This is less of a problem these days, as insurance companies are being more discriminate about where they place their scrap. The government is also trying to help in this area. From next April, all motor salvage operators will have to register with their local authorities and keep accurate records of their work.

The British Motorcycle Federation's (BMF) Jeff Stone agrees bikes lend themselves to being stolen and broken up for spares. "Bikes are easy to dismantle and sell in their component parts," he says.

Demand and supply
Looking at the price of parts, it's not difficult to see where the demand comes from. A tank for a 1998 Honda Fireblade costs £431.75 new from an authorised dealer. A quick ring round a few salvage yards can turn one up for £70.

Stone says manufacturers explain the high cost of spares by saying the same technology goes into to making a bike part as goes into that for a best-selling car. But far fewer of the bikes will be sold, making bike parts the equivalent of parts for luxury cars.

The bikes taken to provide these parts will have been chosen in a methodical way, German says, as bike theft is organised crime. Thieves will go for areas with large numbers of bikes and ease of access. West London is a favourite, he says, with lots of terraced houses and few garages, and many good-quality bikes parked out on the street or in front gardens. "That's the place you go trawling," he says. By contrast, police forces in the north of Scotland only have to deal with a handful of stolen bikes a year.

If a thief is determined to take a bike, he probably will. There have been tales of garages being dismantled brick by brick to get to a valuable target. Motorbike security is probably best thought of as not making a bike immune from thieves, but making it a less attractive target than the one parked next to it.

Hang on to your bike
In its campaign "Don't be a loser", the BMF gives advice on what bikers should be doing to improve the chances of someone else's bike being stolen instead of theirs.

Alarms, immobilisers and secondary locks are the most important. Other tips include finding something solid such as a lamp post or traffic sign to chain the bike to. Any chains should go through the frame of the bike, rather than the wheel, as thieves will be quite happy to leave the wheel behind. And chains and railings should be off the ground and as tight to the machine as possible to make it more difficult to cut or smash them.

Other deterrents include marking devices such as Datatag, and Smartwater, which make the bikes harder to break up and sell on for parts, as all parts of the bike are traceable.

German says you can't be too careful when it comes to securing a bike: "The general advice is to buy everything, but you are looking at a fair amount of money."

Where you work can also reduce the chance of your bike going missing. A few local authorities are trying to cut down on bike theft by providing ground anchors for motorcyclists to lock their bikes to. In April, Westminster Council changed some of its free bike parking spaces into secure metered spaces. It costs 20p an hour to leave a bike in one of these spaces.

As for insurance companies, general opinion is that they need to be proactive and give their policyholders crime prevention advice before bikes are stolen. The BMF would like to see bikes have Thatcham-style security tests applied to bikes in the hope that makers of the easiest targets might get embarrassed into making their bikes more secure.

An idea from the US may also catch on. One of the insurance companies there knows exactly where its policyholders' bikes are. A global positioning system attached to the bike transmits constantly back to the company via satellite. Riders pay for their policy based on the number of miles they have travelled each month, rather than an annual fee.

The problem is, it can also tell what speed the rider has been going at and whether it makes them a worse insurance risk than the company originally thought.

Securing scooters for the trendy commuters
Motorbike parking bays in big cities these days will often be found jammed full of brightly coloured scooters.

Last year saw more than 70,000 scooters registered, a 40% increase on the previous year. And the top-selling bike in 2000 was a scooter - Peugeot's 50cc Speedfight.

The sales boom has been fuelled by commuters deciding to switch to weaving in and out of traffic on the way to and from work and by the scooter's rise as a fashion item. Jamie Oliver's scooter is as much a part of his show as the pukka ingredients and trendy flat.

But scooters are incredibly easy to steal and while the theft rate for bikes fell recently for the first time in six years, that for scooters has risen.

Scooters appeal to opportunist thieves due to their size and weight, so the best deterrent is to lock them to something solid, such as a hefty piece of street furniture.

Ken German of the stolen vehicle branch of the Metropolitan Police says getting the security message across to scooter owners is difficult as they tend to read the FT or the Independent rather than the motorcycle press. "Scooter riders don't want to be classed as motorcyclists," he says.

Many scooter riders have cars as well and are used to just pointing a remote locking device at a vehicle, he says. "The last thing these people want to do is to be scrabbling around putting a lock through the front wheel."

When a bike slips through the net
In May, Andy Wiseman of St Neots, Cambridgeshire, saw a Suzuki GSX-R750X advertised in Motorcycle News for £4,000. He contacted the buyer and was told the bike was "in mint condition". An HPI check came back clear.

Wiseman and his wife Lisa went up to Pontefract to see the bike. Wiseman asked the seller, a Mr Sylvester, if the bike "had been down the road". Sylvester said it hadn't been in an accident and explained that the chips on the paintwork happened when the bike was dropped.

Wiseman decided to buy the bike and rode it back to St Neots. The engine cut out as soon as he got it home and several more times over the next few days.

When he stripped down the front of the bike, Wiseman found that around 20 wires had been cut and joined back together. Suspecting that the bike had been in an accident, he called the previous owner. It had been and had suffered severe damage. It had been sold on to Sylvester in the belief it was going to be a track bike.

The Wisemans tried to get their money back. The Citizen's Advice Bureau and Philip Swift of Claims Management & Adjusting (CMA) got involved with the case. After a number of letters had been sent to Sylvester, he contacted the Wisemans.

He came to their house and gave them £3,800 back, but went off with the bike. The shortfall of £200 came through CMA.

Lisa Wiseman contacted Fortis, the original insurer of the bike to find out why it had not been put on the HPI register. She was told it had "slipped through the net". But she says the person she spoke to at Fortis said it cost the firm money to register a vehicle with HPI.

Fortis no longer insures motorbikes, but a spokeswoman said it had been standard procedure to notify the register of bikes which had been written off.