How I Busted a Thief Who Tried to Sell My Camera on Craigslist


Sunday morning: time to survey the damage from last night’s party. As I walked around the apartment picking up empty beer bottles and cups, wiping up spills, and putting the furniture back, I remember having a distinct feeling that something was amiss. A quick survey of the apartment, and it hits me. My DSLR was missing.

Even as I frantically searched every nook and cranny of the apartment I knew the answer: someone had stolen my camera.

After searching for more than an hour — and cussing up a storm — I finally sat down and accepted my fate. My precious camera, which I learned photography on, which had taken so many memorable photos, which was very much a part of me, had been stolen, and the chances of ever getting it back again were slim to none. Yet still, there was a chance.


I filed a police report detailing the incident and tried to piece together in my head who could have possibly stolen my camera. The party was only supposed to be for close friends and acquaintances, essentially people my roommate and I knew personally. As the fuzzy memories of the previous night started to stumble their way back into my head, I remembered seeing some people I had never met at the party.

It was most likely that one of them had taken it, but I knew neither their names or any other information about them except that maybe one of my friends brought them. I asked my friends to see if their guests knew anything about the camera, no luck.

Fast forward to Monday morning. I’m sitting at work, defeated, when I decided to peruse the Craigslist ads in my city to see if the thief was amateur enough to post my camera on there. It was a shot in the dark, but worth a try.

As soon as I read the title of the first listing, I felt my adrenaline shoot up like it never had before.

The DSLR was a Canon Rebel T2i similar to this one

The DSLR was a Canon Rebel T2i similar to this one

This was my camera. Even before looking at the pictures linked to the ad I knew it was my DSLR, with my battery grip, and my lens. The thief had decided to post the listing in the same city he stole it from… the day after he stole it. He didn’t bother to at least wait for me to stop checking Craigslist, or even post in a different city.

The pictures in the ad confirmed it was my camera — most importantly, the scratch on the door of the SD card slot. The ad stated that the camera was a gift, so there was no box, no manuals, not even a lens cap — not fishy at all!

At this point, I knew I was going to get my camera back one way or another. Seeing as how the ad was already a day old, I was afraid that if I didn’t act fast, someone else would buy it. I quickly created a fake email address/name and emailed him asking about the condition of the camera, how old it was, etc… typical Craigslist buyer questions so as not to arouse suspicion.

He promptly responded with a BS story about how the camera was a gift, and that everything worked (I knew the pop-up flash didn’t work correctly) along with a name attached to the email. I searched Facebook and immediately found a matching profile that was was not set to private. From the first picture I knew that I had seen this person at the party, and that he had stolen my camera.


Thinking ahead, I told a few of my friends to set up fake emails and pretend to be interested in the camera, just to ensure that I had backups to work with in case my emails failed to entice a sale or scared him away.

After discussing strategies with the police dispatcher, I decided to lure the perp to a coffee shop located half a block away from a police department, where I would try to ask for assistance. He agreed to meet at the time of my choosing, and gave me his phone number.

As soon as I arrived home from work I began gathering documents including receipts of my camera equipment, pictures of the thief, a printout of the police report I filed earlier, and any other documents proving my ownership of the equipment. I was only missing the serial number for my camera, which I know was written somewhere on the documents contained in the original DSLR box. The box, however, was at my parent’s house a few hours away, I wouldn’t be able to access it.

Luckily I discovered a website called the Stolen Camera Finder which was able to retrieve the serial number of my camera from any of the pictures I took with it.


After updating the police report with the serial number and other identifying information, I waited nervously until I could get off work and go to the police station. Everything was going as planned.

An hour before the scheduled meeting, I called my friend who wasn’t present at the party to help me out in a sting operation. He agreed to help, and I decided to plant him inside the coffee shop. He would drink coffee and pretend to read a magazine while preparing to send me a text the moment he spots the thief coming into the cafe. I also had another friend on the end of the street eating a burrito, ready to tackle the guy in case he decided to bolt.

Meanwhile, I went to the police department and asked for assistance in getting my camera back. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of help from the PD. I almost considered just telling my friend in the cafe to pretend to be the guy interested in the camera. He would just grab the camera while inspecting it and run for the police department.

However, that seemed pretty risky with a high chance of failure, so I was incredibly relieved and even a bit surprised when the PD decided to lend me two undercover cops complete with body armor.

The officers were very nice, I was able to explain the situation succinctly and shared my plan with them in getting the camera back. I think the officers were slightly taken aback at how well prepared and detailed I was, so they just went along with my sting operation plan as if I had been just another seasoned cop.

The thief agreed to meet at a local coffee shop

The thief agreed to meet at a local coffee shop

We hopped into a nondescript undercover car, and drove around the block a few times. With just 5 minutes to spare before the thief’s arrival, we park across the street from the cafe and wait for the text from my friend. I decide to text the perpetrator that I would be a little late so he should just grab a cup of coffee or something and wait in the cafe; this was to ensure he would be easily cornered in a cafe by the cops. I also asked for a description of what he was wearing so that my friend and the cops could more easily identify him.

With my friend on the street corner, one friend in the cafe, and two undercover cops, I honestly wasn’t sure how the situation would play out, and my heart was racing a mile a minute waiting for the text. I received a text on the exact minute the thief had promised to arrive, and let the officers know. I stayed in the car to protect my identity, but my friend told me the cops tapped the guy on the shoulder while he was in the middle of ordering coffee (he took the bait, hook, line and sinker).


The cops questioned him for a bit, confiscated his backpack with my camera in it, and arrested him. It turns out he had a very realistic airsoft gun on him, which would have made running away with the camera a helluva lot scarier. When he was fingerprinted at the station it turns out this guy also had a warrant out for his arrest, and that he was using an alias all this time.

Back at the police station, I was able to correctly match up the serial numbers of my camera equipment along with receipts for proof of ownership. All in all, It was an intense, adrenaline-filled night and a story I will be sure to tell my grandkids.

My friends and I felt like heroes of a police department in some CSI show, and I was even a little disappointed I didn’t get a junior detectives badge. However, when it comes down to it I was just glad to have my camera back.

About the author: Jeff Hu is an enthusiast photographer in the bay area who is very protective of his camera gear. Visit his Flickr here. This story was originally posted on Reddit here.

Image credit: by InfoMofo, United States Virgin Islands Police Department by Lee Cannon, digital by 21TonGiant, Johnnie’s Coffee Shop by Sam Howzit, handcuffs by Keith Allison

  • Brendan Wixted

    bad ass story!

  • Dan Howard

    Amazing story, really enjoyed reading that. Could have done with a car chase in there somewhere but great none the less.

  • varunkrish

    Wow someone make a movie out of this story please :D Glad you got your camera back !

  • Bob L

    You didn’t need to look on the website to find your S/N, all you had to do was look in your EXIF data. Same place the website looked.

  • ryfter

    Great story. I had a month-old lens stolen last year. I can totally understand that sinking feeling. People like that, are scum.

  • nasua

    Something similar happened to me years ago. Had a camera stolen and about a month later while shopping at a camera store that I frequented, someone came up and offered to sell me the same model camera (I had since replaced it). Told him I wasn’t interested but he insisted I take a look at it anyway. On sight I recognized the serial number and an identifying mark on the body so I told him I might be interested after all and to wait there. I then quietly asked the shop manager to call the PD and went to back to chat until the police arrived. A couple minutes later with my back to the shop entrance I saw the guy’s face contort knowing he had just been busted.

  • Nick Hill

    You need to make that into a short film!

  • bob cooley

    I had a similar tale with a bike I owned, had stolen, and soon owned again. Its a horrible feeling of violation when something important is stolen from you, but an even better feeling when you win in the end. Good on you!

  • Nikki Comma

    Such a great story. I love when the good guy wins, especially over bags of poop who steal. A guy I know had a similar thing happen with a bike that was stolen from him and the thief posting it on Kijiji.

  • Jesse

    Is Bob Cooley the guy you know?

  • Diego Oliveros

    Finally an amuzing post on this website. nice story.

  • The all mighty one

    Hide yo wife, hide yo kids, hide yo gear

  • Igor Ken

    I think there is a non-photography-related plot in a similar to this story in the movie “Taken”? XD

  • Louie

    This is amazing. Bravo! I wish I thought to check craigslist when my flash went missing :P

  • TSY87

    Glad you got your camera back and the criminal got caught.

  • Kieran Grasby

    HELLS YEAH! Good for you mr author person. I would be devastated if someone stole my camera from me, so I can all too well imagine how relieved you must have been to retrieve your faithful photographic friend.

  • Nathan Blaney

    Ain’t nobody got time for that…

  • You Wish

    Mr. author person??? Haaaa.

  • Nikki Comma

    No his name’s Gordon. Guess it happens a lot. Haha.

  • Thomas Hawk

    Nice detective work! :)

  • Piggly Winks

    Get a gun…

  • eraserhead12

    I’m surprised the police were so cooperative! congrats on getting your gear back, and using your head

  • Robert LeBlanc

    Clearly not protective enough.

  • Rob S

    better man than me. I would have gotten violent

  • Roy

    Get a clue…

  • Thiago Medeiros

    The downside is that he knows where you live and can come for revenge. – THE SEQUEL ENSUES

  • Woody O’Neal

    ok Canon, Nikon, Sony, EVERYONE. It’s about time you implemented some sort of passcode lock on cameras. iPhone, Android has it…why not my pricey DSLR’s

  • Daylon Walton

    YES!! Good for you! Glad you got the A$$*&@#!

  • a reader

    great story. great ending. glad you got the gear back. moral of the story is…


  • Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    yeah, getting that serial number was a lot harder in the movie

  • Claire G.

    I had something like this happen to me! Right down to the fake emails, undercover cops and recovered camera! Our genius trick was to pretend to be a buyer and ask for a picture of the bottom of the camera “to see if it would fit on my tripod.” The dumbass sent me a crystal clear picture of my serial number.

    He had at least waited 2 weeks to post on Craigslist, but after I he provided me with proof it was mine, two cops pretended to be me and my husband in a grocery store parking lot. Busted.

  • droops

    “My precious camera, which I learned photography on”

    Bummer you didn’t learn on film.

  • Ansel

    The reason you didn’t get a junior detective badge is that they don’t give them out to idiots who don’t lock up their camera gear when throwing a party. Lucky for you the police agreed to co-operate. You should be thanking them again and angain instead of expecting an award.

  • Nick Levanti

    Here it is, was waiting for the first person to claw until they found something to post something negatively about.

  • Norshan Nusi

    That is a really good idea.

  • HuzzahGuy

    You say you and your friend felt like heroes, but you don’t mention any gratefulness for the cops. Pretty self-absorbed.

  • Eugene

    Wow! Great story! Too bad stolencamerafinder hasn’t been able to locate my camera yet…

  • lidocaineus

    Right. Because those take more than a total of 5 minutes to bypass.

  • ripley

    Totally badass.

  • Alex Minkin

    thats awesome. great job, really glad that you were level headed enough to put all that together

  • genotypewriter

    It’s fake. So many gullible people here, it’s nauseating.

  • Babura Joe


    No photographers would like having to type in the camera code while the photo opportunity has just passed in front of his/her eyes.

    Think before you post next time.

  • Zivko Radovanovich

    Agree. People just take blindly what they read for a fact as granted, these days.

  • Joe

    Baller! Good work gumshoe.

  • Matt Collins

    book em Danno!

  • John

    Way to go!!!! This would make a great episode of (insert your favorite detective/police tv series here).. I love it!!! (y)

  • faloc

    nice catch :P though another alternative would be to get photography insurance :P

  • Tom Waugh

    Also, if you need any more detailed EXIF info, there’s no need to go to Stolencamerafinder. You can upload a picture to this page and view lots of details:

  • Vlad Rap

    Best. Comment. Ever. Lol!

  • slvrscoobie

    Or maybe, just maybe, dont get drunk and let stangers in your house if your have a ‘valuable’ rebel camera sitting around. maybe.