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

  • Sarpent

    Did you figure out the connection that got this guy to your party in the first place?

  • Moo79

    Meow! that was one bitchy response, little mister. You think before posting next time, no need to be so catty.

  • Jared Monkman

    would have been cool if it hadn’t already been beaten to death over on reddit…

  • Edoardo Paolo

    This being the internet, I don’t know if I’m reading a piece of amateur fiction or a real story…not that it matters much.

  • Ken Jones

    I’ll tell you, some crooks are really dumb.

    Reminds me of the time when some folks had a work party and two ladies had their wallets come up missing. They checked the banks and found out cards had been used at a local Walmart. Loss Prevention officers were able to pull transactions and from there pull video.

    One of the party goers had taken pictures of the event.

    This lady using the stolen cards had not even changed her clothes!

    “You so dumb!”

  • Jon Quimbly

    Good story, although I found the stock photos a bit incongruous vs a factual telling of a crime story.

    Also, why haven’t you released the perp’s name(s)? There shouldn’t be any liability.

    Finally, I hope you reasessed your relationship with the friend who invited the perp to your party.

  • Chris Newhall

    I was reading about this on Reddit as it was going on, I’m glad to hear you got your camera back, things went smoothly, and nobody got hurt!

  • Smartperson

    Clearly not “very protective of his gear”- this would never happen to me because im not a dumbass

  • vzio

    buy a safe.

  • Kieran Grasby

    I know his name is printed on the article, but I was just too excitable to scroll up even a tiny amount

  • Dirk

    Junior G-Man badge! HAH

  • Hank

    Good job Matt! I too just had my camera (well, my friend’s) stolen and am waiting to see if anything comes up from your website. Thanks so much!

  • Grade School Teacher

    “My precious camera, which I learned photography on”

    I think this boy should purchase a precious book on grammar, to learn how to construct a sentence on…

  • Chief Hokie


  • Abc

    Same result, no?

  • Dennis

    Bourne Photography!

  • Jeremiah Washington

    Buuuuut you understood what he said right?

  • Dreamer


  • dreamer


  • ( •̀ .̫ •́ )

    very entertaining!

  • Furunomoe

    Isn’t it as easy as “Zoom & Enhance”?

  • David Neitzke

    THAT my friend is exactly WHY we own firearms

  • dooug

    You would be surprised as to how often an officer of the law is willing to help you out if you came up with a pretty solid plan. There are quite a lot of these kind of stories, all really good to read.

  • Rip

    Couldn’t get past second sentence of this made up story. Next time try writing the da Vinci code 2

  • Nicholas Erwin

    Awesome story! I loved how the cops helped, there are good people in the world. I’m glad you got your camera back! I would be sad with out mine.

  • Pablo Ricasso

    He wasn’t “catty”. He was simply right.
    And you should also think before you write.

  • ASPhoto

    Oh no! Maybe the thief also stole his grammar!

  • Maurice Brown

    Are you sure they’re still there?

  • Maurice Brown

    Five minutes?
    It depends.
    My skill set (INFOSEC)? Piece of cake.
    Average person? Can be a pretty high bar.
    I agree with Babura though. The number of once-in-a-lifetime with the stars in perfect alignment shots I’d have missed if I had to screw around with that makes me cring at the mere thought!

  • harkin

    Great job – especially getting this scumbag arrested instead of just getting your camera back, most perps will do anything to avoid arrest and all they do is just keep robbin.

  • cunguez

    Oh, absolutely. Clearly, this a morality tale meant to draw our attention to the many dangers of using poor syntax and ending our clauses with prepositions, am I right? I think that we in the photography community can all agree that the story would have been far more compelling had he instead decided to say, “My precious camera, which I learned photography on, which I used to take pictures rather than spending my time trolling blog forums posting irrelevant, condescending comments about grammatical structure and committing other acts of grand-high douchebaggery.”

  • virgilstarkwell

    no, you own firearms to overcompensate for your small penis.

  • virgilstarkwell

    thanks, captain bummer.

  • Jones Jnr

    Big Up yourself! Good job!

  • lidocaineus

    What? Who cares what the PIN is? If you’ve stolen a phone, 99% of the time it’s not for what’s on it, it’s to sell it. Factory reset it, done.

  • Josh

    Maybe you should think before you post. You would only have it locked when it was in storage and not being used. If it was on you person there would be no reason to lock it.

  • PhotoShark

    wait…i remember this article from at least a year ago…or at least something extremely similar…

  • Fred Ogg

    What’s the description of the perp, including race?

  • Busted tactic

    Unfortunately, now that this ruse has gone viral on the net, no other victim photographer will be able to effectively use it as a tactic to get his/her stolen gear.

  • Edith

    WOW! Incredible story

  • DafOwen

    Don’t see why not – as long as thieves will be selling on ebay/Craig’s list etc

  • FaYiMoRa

    Courage! However, don’t forget you have practically revealed your identity by posting this online.

  • Guest

    agree. bogus.

  • james aragorn

    Don’t feed the trolls.

  • Headhunter09

    He censored the name because, unlike the thief, he isn’t an asshole.

  • Martin Saulis

    So, lesson learned? Don’t drink too much while hosting a party. You should’ve been quite drunk to no be able to face-control the attendees.

  • Chris

    I think you mean grammara.

  • OriginalGeek

    Nice one. My experience has been, if you provide good evidence and make it an easy arrest, the cops are always glad to help out. Their bosses do keep score, so they will take the gimme.

  • Scritti Politti

    To top it off, there’s nothing wrong with that grammar. If you’re talking about the discredited and outdated claim that you can’t end a sentence in a preposition, YOU need some remedial class.

  • Scritti Politti

    Good story. Not as good as P-P-P-PowerBook, but good.