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Scooters are hot right now. So hot, in fact, that Stuart Kushner is on his third moped.

But that’s not by choice. Kushner, a 49-year-old U Street NW resident, has lost two $1,500 bikes to theft. His first Tomos scooter was stolen from his garage; the second was stolen at gunpoint in Dupont Circle in July 2004.

Kushner was on his way to get a haircut when two young men came up behind him. One of them demanded that he get off the scooter. Kushner didn’t believe what was happening to him until the thief pulled up his shirt to reveal a gun tucked in the waistband.

“I’ll take good care of it,” one robber yelled back as the two sped off.

Kushner is just one victim in a recent wave of scooterjackings in the police department’s 3rd District, which encompasses Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and the U Street corridor—neighborhoods that attract the kind of hip urbanites who buy Vespas and other vintage-style scooters. And scooters aren’t just for fashion plates anymore, either: High gas prices and scarce parking make them a popular way to get around town. The Vespa Washington dealership, on Wisconsin Avenue NW, sold a record-breaking 60 scooters in September. Halfway through October, it had already surpassed what it sold in all of October 2004.

The jump in scooter sales has been met with a corresponding jump in scooter thefts. The police department recorded 29 stolen scooters in the 3rd District from July to September, including two forcefully taken from riders, says Inspector Patrick Burke. Historical figures are not available; a 3rd District lieutenant says that scooter theft is difficult to track because it can be classified as either auto theft, like that of motorcycles, or item theft, like that of bicycles.

Burke calls scooters an “easy steal” because thieves can simply put them in the back of a truck and take off. Although it qualifies as auto theft, stealing a scooter is more like stealing a bicycle, he says.

Matt Ross, 26, is the general sales manager at Coleman PowerSports in Falls Church. The dealership sells scooters from manufacturers such as Honda, Stella, and Aprilia. Because of the increase in scooter thefts, Ross has urged his customers to buy extra theft insurance.

“I’ve been riding scooters all my life, but I’m a little apprehensive about riding around the city at night right now,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll get over it, but it’s too bad.”

His apprehension comes from personal experience. On Oct. 4, at around 1 a.m., he was riding his $3,000 Italian Aprilia scooter at 14th and T Streets NW when a man with a butcher knife took two swipes at him. Ross gunned the scooter and managed to escape.

Some riders lose their scooters simply because they are lazy about locking them up. Vespa offers a security mechanism that makes it impossible to start one of its scooters without a computer-coded key, and if one is stolen, Vespa dealers nationwide are told the vehicle identification number. A Vespa stolen from D.C. was recently found in Texas, says John Press, the assistant manager of Vespa Washington.

Vespa models with the security systems are recovered about 80 percent of the time, according to Press. But in Ross’ experience at Coleman PowerSports, once a scooter is taken, there is little hope of seeing it again. “Someone will ride it around, destroy it, and leave it in the gutter,” Ross says.

Vespa’s computerized keys are a huge improvement over the small steel security loop on the side of the bike, intended for a lock and chain, that dealers jokingly call the “insecurity loop,” says Kevin Rooney, 42, whose Vespa scooter was stolen from him at gunpoint at 16th and T Streets NW in July 2004.

Rooney’s scooterjacking experience hasn’t led him to switch to a less-coveted form of transport. “I love riding these things,” he says. “For city living, it’s a fantastic way to get around town. Scooters are one of the few things you can get that’s like a toy and has a very practical use.”

But they’re expensive toys: Rooney’s first scooter cost about $4,000, and his new one set him back $5,000. And the built-in security features weren’t enough for Rooney: His new Vespa has a $175 aftermarket alarm with a remote immobilizer. This time if he sees someone taking off on his bike, he can cut the ignition from a couple of hundred yards away.

For his third scooter, Kushner opted for something more secure, too. He bought a Kymco model that comes with an automatic-locking mechanism. “I can be lazy with that,” he admits.

When Mike Benson’s vintage-style Stella scooter was snatched from his Bloomingdale back yard on Sept. 28, he didn’t rely on high-tech security systems or wait for a police investigation to run its course—he went after it himself. He visited neighborhood Internet groups asking people to keep an eye out for it. Calls from neighbors poured in almost immediately.

Over the next week, he called 311 about six times to relay scooter sightings. He even hopped in his car to do his own search when the police responded too slowly. When he finally spotted the scooter on Oct. 1 on T Street NW, Benson charged up to the group of young men assembled around it and demanded his bike back. At 39 years old, 6-foot-3, and 210 pounds, Benson wasn’t too worried. “I was hoping that I would scare the shit out of these guys and they would just take off running,” he says.

Not quite. The thieves started throwing punches, and when Benson fought back, one of them pulled a gun. He chased Benson down the street yelling, “You want some of this?”

Benson escaped safely, sans scooter. Although he regrets confronting the thieves and risking his life, he doesn’t regret the message that it sent.

“At least they know that we’re not taking this,” Benson says. “You can’t just steal a scooter and then go bombing around the neighborhood.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Llana Kohn.