I am not ashamed to say that this is something I have literal nightmares about. I’ve left my camera in my car, or in a hotel room, or horror-of-horrors, I left it hanging on the back of my chair at a restaurant. Some unscrupulous person found it there and decided to claim it for his own, or worse, he broke into my car or home and took my most beloved possession. I generally wake up from these dreams in a cold sweat, and sometimes I even go check on my camera to make sure that my dream wasn’t based on any kind of reality.
We don’t want to think about it and we like to believe that it won’t happen to us, but the fact is that camera theft is big business. Cameras are big-ticket items, which makes them desirable to thieves, which means that we have to take steps to protect them. Here’s how.
I’m sure that you have heard the expression “prevention is the best medicine.” These words of wisdom are not just for our own health and well-being, they can also be applied to the health and safety of the things we love. So no discussion of stolen cameras would be complete without a little talk about prevention, even if it is stuff that really ought to be obvious.
First, make sure that you have insurance. If you’re a professional, this usually means buying an insurance policy specifically for your gear. If you’re a hobbyist, your gear should be covered under your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy. To make it official, ask your agent for a rider and list the model, serial number and receipts (if you have them) for each piece of gear you own. Don’t worry if you don’t have those receipts—you can still file a claim if it comes to it, it just means you’ll have more hoops to jump through.
Remember that if the worst happens, you may need to file a police report—even if your insurance company doesn’t require one, it will make your claim easier.
If you’re a pro you do need to individually insure your equipment, which is more expensive than simply adding it to your home insurance policy. But a pro insurance policy has added benefits—for example, if you drop your camera on someone’s head you’ll be covered if they decide to sue you for damages.
Now let’s not forget that your gear is not the only thing at risk if your camera is stolen. Your camera’s memory card may be even more valuable to you than the camera itself, especially if your primary subjects are your children or other loved ones. I would personally far rather lose even my nice DSLR than the photos that are kept on the memory card inside that DSLR. So one thing you can do to protect yourself right away is take the card out of your camera whenever you aren’t using it. At home, store your cards separately from your camera gear, so if a thief does break into your home he won’t take the cards along with the camera. And I know I don’t have to stress to you the importance of backing up. It’s not enough to simply copy your files to an external hard drive—this will protect you in the event that your primary hard drive fails, but if someone breaks into your house I can almost guarantee they will take the hard drive along with your camera equipment. You can back up your files to DVDs and store them in your book shelf for some protection (a thief isn’t likely to take a binder full of DVDs) but this requires diligence. Instead I recommend using a cloud service that will automatically back up your files for you, without any effort from you at all. It really is a small price to pay for the knowledge that your photos will be protected even if your hard drive disappears.
And my other tips are just common sense—hopefully you’re already putting them into practice. When you’re out with your gear, travel light if you can. If you must carry around extra lenses, make sure they’re in a bag that doesn’t scream “camera gear!” Wear your camera cross-body or keep it secure in a case that you also wear that way. Never hang it from the back of a chair and avoid leaving it unattended in your car whenever you can. If you must leave it in your car, make sure you conceal it (I like to throw a sweatshirt or a jacket over it so it’s not obvious if someone decides to look through the window) and make doubly sure you lock up. Having an alarm for your car doesn’t hurt.
And keep your gear secured inside your home, too. There’s no reason why you have to make it easy or obvious for a thief who does succeed in getting through your home’s first defenses—so consider buying a safe to store your gear in, and keep your safe somewhere inconspicuous such as the back of a closet or inside a cabinet. Most thieves aren’t going to spend a lot of time searching, they’re going to grab the things they can see and leave while they have a chance. A safe is a tempting target but an impractical one—it’s heavy and if the intruder does succeed in getting it out of the house, he might never be able to open it. It’s much easier for him to just grab the flat screen TV and go.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to add an identifying mark to your camera—something that isn’t obvious, such as an ink mark or (gasp!) a scratch. Then document that identifying mark with a photo and keep it with your serial number information. You can use the mark to identify any equipment someone might be selling online—most thieves are going to avoid posting images of a serial number, but they might not think to avoid posting images of a scratch or ink mark.
What to do if your camera is stolen
Let’s say you’ve taken all these precautions and you still end up losing your camera to a thief. Sadly, the odds aren’t in your favor. Most stolen cameras are not recovered—they end up in pawn shops in distant cities or sold on eBay or just in the hands of someone who wanted a free camera. But that doesn’t mean you should just sit back and play the helpless victim—there are actually some things you can do to improve your admittedly slim chances of getting your camera back.
First, check one or more of the free photo-tracking services that are available online. You already knew that your camera’s EXIF data was useful (it can help you understand your camera’s settings or identify the time and date you took a photo, for example). But also embedded in your camera’s EXIF data is its serial number, so if the person who stole your camera then posts a photo he shot with that camera online, one of these services might be able to track that person through the EXIF data. If your camera has GPS you may even be able to find out where and when it was used, which can help you narrow down its current location.
spark! by Flickr user willsfca
It’s always a good idea to keep a record of all your serial numbers, but just in case you didn’t you can find that number in the EXIF data for any photo you took before your camera was stolen. Some services will even extract that data for you by simply asking you to upload an image taken by the missing camera. The two most popular camera finding services are StolenCameraFinder and CameraTrace—it’s worth checking both to see if someone has posted images from your camera online.
If you do find a match, you may be able to locate the person through his Flickr account (or account elsewhere, depending on where the photos were posted) but this is a tricky business and you might have better luck asking the camera finding service to assist you in recovering the camera. Sometimes you can even get the police involved—a letter to that person requesting return of the gear in lieu of prosecution may be enough to get your stuff back, if not to get actual legal justice.
Unfortunately I do want to add that not every place where you can post photos online can help you recover a stolen camera—for various reasons (one of which is privacy), Facebook actually strips EXIF data whenever you upload an image. That means that if your camera’s thief decided to post some pictures on Facebook, none of the camera finding services would be able to track it that way. It’s unfortunate, because Facebook is probably the most likely place where images from a stolen camera might appear.
Craigslist and eBay
Many thieves steal gear not because they want it for themselves, but because they want to sell it to someone else. If you lose a camera or other piece of photographic equipment you should check your local Craigslist immediately, and keep checking until several months have passed. Some thieves will post a sales listing right away, while others will wait knowing that their victim is going to be on the lookout for his stuff. And don’t forget to check eBay, which is another favorite place to sell stolen merchandise. Look closely at the listing photos for that identifying mark I hope you added to your camera. Once you spot an ad or listing for your camera, I recommend soliciting help from local law enforcement or an online camera finding service—don’t try to go this alone or the thief may suspect and disappear. And don’t delay—remember you have just until the eBay auction is over or the thief finds a Craigslist buyer to act or it may be too late.
Just because we live in a high-tech world doesn’t mean that thieves no longer use low-tech routes to sell stolen goods. Don’t discount your local pawn shop or a camera shop that sells used gear. It’s best not to tell a broker that he has your stolen merchandise—instead tell him you’re interested in buying and ask him to hold the merchandise for you. Then contact police and let them know you’ve located your stolen property. Remember that your serial number and identifying photographs will be important in this situation, but don’t expect that you will simply be able to collect your gear and walk out. Some shop owners will be honest and work with you (especially when you get the police involved) but others may not be so accommodating—after all they’re going to be out some money too if they have to give your gear back to you. Check the laws in your state or country—in some places you have to buy the merchandise back and then go through the courts or even after the thief for restitution (the law often requires anyone who does business with a pawn broker to give identifying information such as a thumbprint and driver’s license number), and in other places the pawn broker is required to give your property back to you provided that you have proof of ownership.
Now I don’t want to get your hopes up because although there are plenty of dumb thieves in this world, there are also smart ones—and it may be that your stuff is gone for good. That’s why it’s so important to make sure everything is insured, and to make sure that your photos are safely backed up and stored outside your home. It’s never going to be possible to protect yourself 100%—even a well secured home is not completely invulnerable and even the most cautious photographer sometimes lets his guard down. So always take those preventative measures and hopefully you’ll sleep secure in the knowledge that if the worst does happen, you’ll be covered.
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