Net videos show how simple trick using pen foils costly bike locks

Affects U-shaped devices

riders keep bicycles home

September 17, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The cunning bicycle thieves of New York always seem to be one step ahead of lock makers. Design a more sophisticated lock and the thieves make a better pick. Make a sturdier chain and they get bigger bolt cutters. And if all else fails, they just dig up the parking meter or stop sign to unshackle the bike from it. But to open some of the toughest locks on the market, thieves need only to flick their Bic pens.

Many cyclists erupted in disbelief and anger this week after videos were posted on the Internet showing how a few seconds of work could disable many of the most expensive and common U-shaped locks, including several models made by Kryptonite, the most recognized brand.

Mashing the empty barrel of a ballpoint pen into the cylindrical keyhole and turning it clockwise does the trick that has struck fear into the hearts of bicycle owners, especially those in New York, where thousands of bikes are stolen each year.

"There was murmuring on various Web sites, and so I decided to go home and pick up a pen and see it if works," said Benjamin Running, a graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn. "Sure enough, within 30 seconds I had broken into my $90 lock. I was in awe. My jaw literally dropped to the floor. It was so easy."

And many Internet users had the same reaction this week when they saw the homemade video he posted on his blog of his Kryptonite NY Chain popping open.

The problem could have wider consequences. Lock experts said the fault was with a particular type of cylindrical lock that is used not just in bike locks but in vending machines, cable locks for laptop computers, alarm system panels and countless other places.

Not all such locks are vulnerable because some are more sophisticatedly constructed. Older Kryptonite locks made before 2002 appear to be less susceptible, according to bike shops that have tried to use the technique on them.

But this type of mechanism is used on most of the bicycle locks that are used by millions of people across the country, not just those made by Kryptonite (although the company said yesterday that a new and better model was on the way).

As the news spread, bicycle shops across the nation pulled the locks off their shelves and cyclists left their bikes at home, wondering if anything could keep their wheels safe.

The uproar appears to have started on Sunday, when Chris Brennan, a cyclist in San Francisco, posted an urgent message on the bikeforums.net bulletin board after he was able to pop open his lock with a pen.

Like many people, he had been skeptical, but doubts were quickly dispelled when users like Running started posting digital video clips of the trick. By Thursday, 125,000 people had downloaded it from, his site, thirdrate.com, he said. Meanwhile, nearly 170,000 had seen Brennan's posting, starting a full-fledged panic.

Kryptonite has been making locks since the 1970s and is recognized by most bicycle shops as the leading lock maker.

In a statement sent by e-mail yesterday, the company said that it was aware of the problem and was moving quickly to get locks featuring a different mechanism to bike shops and that it was in the process of designing a program to let users of compromised locks upgrade to new ones.

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