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Tracking theft is labor of Love

Published January 3, 2011

By Jason Norman

Andrew Love is the industry’s Dog the Bounty Hunter—but instead of going after humans skipping out on bail he’s going after stolen product, much of it at the retail level. Love serves as Specialized’s brand security man—a title that is a rarity in the industry.

“When I started in customer service I noticed there was a need,” Love said of the position he currently holds. “When I articulated the need for this position to Specialized management, they said go for it.

“I think I’m the only person in the bike industry as far as I can tell who actively goes out and looks for weird stuff online, and tries to figure out where it comes from,” added Love, 40, who works out of Specialized’s Salt Lake City facility.

Having worked in the tech sector before coming to Specialized three years ago—and also being an avid eBay user—Love knows when something doesn’t look right. Maybe it helps that his summer reading list has included Sherlock Holmes.

“If an eBayer’s bikes are all the same size, it’s probably an individual unloading their own bikes,” Love said. “If it’s a lot of mixed sizes, brand new, selling below wholesale—plus many items you could stuff in your pack and walk out the door with—then it demands a closer look.”

Love has been involved in at least 20 cases where he calls the shop—or the Specialized outside sales rep—asking, “‘Hey, we’re sure these bikes are coming from you. Are you aware of this?’” Love said. “Sometimes the shops know and have already fired the person. And sometimes it’s a big shock. I always try to deal with that situation with empathy, because as much as I’m an investigator and I’m excited about figuring out the puzzle, there’s a lot of pain there when shops find it’s a member of their family who’s betrayed them.”

Love tracked a case for about a year involving Kozy’s Cyclery in Chicago.

“I watched, watched and watched,” Love said. “And one day I got a call from a bike shop and they said we got a brand new eBay bike in a box here. I said, ‘Really? It wouldn’t happen to be a blue 51-centimeter Ruby, would it?’ And they started cracking up. ‘How do you know?’ they asked. And I said, ‘Let me guess. It was shipped from the upper Midwest, right?’ That was the bike that cracked the case (in March 2009). Between the serial number of the bike, and other small details, we were able to connect the dots.”

In many of these retail cases, it’s an employee who handles shipping or receiving that’s behind the heists because they have easy access to purchases and the store’s computer system.

Paul Kozy of Kozy’s Cyclery said in his case the employee had access to the b2b site and ordered through the site. “It’s really a blessing that it happened because it helped us patch some holes in our system and made us realize just where some weaknesses are,” he said.

While only around 10 bikes were stolen from Kozy’s and sold on eBay, Pro Bikes in Pittsburg was less fortunate. “That’s one of the biggest ones I’ve worked on recently,” Love said.

Two hundred of the shop’s bikes were sold on eBay, of which a quarter to a third were Specialized.

“For a lot of bike shops this would have put them out of business,” said Pro Bikes owner Craig Cozza, who couldn’t speak to the specifics of the case because of an ongoing investigation. “It could have put us out of business, but fortunately we make our money doing something else.”

Cozza, a real estate developer by trade, believes much of it was an inside job. The sheer volume of the thefts caught him by surprise. “He found it,” Cozza said of Love. “He dug in and pulled up all the evidence for us, which was great, and now it’s in the authorities hands to go catch the bad guys.

“It’s one thing to know you’re missing bikes, but it’s another thing to know where they went,” Cozza added. “He obviously figured that out.”

Cozza said one lesson learned is that his shop probably needs more frequent cycle counts of its inventory.

“It’s tough when you’re not there every day,” Cozza said. “You trust people. You have to be able to trust people working at your bike shops. There are just too many ways that things can happen. And unfortunately when you get someone you can’t trust, that’s a problem. Then when they get together on it, it’s even more of a problem.”

In a struggling economy, retail theft rings seem to gain even more steam, according to Love.

“Unquestionably there’s been an increase in this as people get desperate,” Love said. “I also find employees who buy a bike through their shop and turn around and flip it on eBay or Craigslist immediately, brand minty-new. Manufacturers give bike shop employees great deals because we want them riding our stuff. These people sell our bikes—it’s great. That’s not criminal, but the shop needs to know someone did that.”

Even though it’s Love’s job to be skeptical most of the time, he said retailers still need to trust their staff.

“You need to believe in the good of people, because most people are good,” Love said. “And if you walk around with that fear looming over you, you can have a bad outlook. Doing what I do, it’s really easy to get poisoned in your view of people.”

While bike brands have become more vigilant about policing their products online, dedicated brand security positions remain few and far between in the industry.

“I think the bicycle industry is playing catch up with being tech savvy, but they’re starting to get better,” Love said. “The bike industry does need to have individuals familiar with intellectual property and law to fight the tsunami of counterfeits out there. The bike industry really does need to have people who are really good online investigators for situations like employee theft. I think most companies are more reactive than proactive.

“Is it a need?” Love said of his position, “absolutely.”

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