Faces of Theft, Part 3: Theft, Recovery, and the Afterlife of Stolen Gear

Faces of Theft is a 3-part series covering different aspects of theft and things you can do to help mitigate being a victim. Part 1 covers gear stolen from secure locations, like your home or a hotel. Part 2 covers robberies and how to improve your situational awareness. In part 3, we discusses already-stolen gear and recovery. 

What happens to camera gear after it is stolen? Sadly, much it gets sold as quickly as possible to unwitting buyers. In the U.S., and in many other parts of the world, ignorance of theft is no excuse for being in possession of stolen gear, which is why it can be so scary to buy stuff online without at least first checking it against our public Stolen Gear List.  To quote Stuart P. Green, a law professor at Rutgers University, “…theoretically, someone who buys stolen property from an online vendor is just as liable as someone who buys it out of the back of a truck…Depending on how the local or state law is written, not knowing it was stolen isn’t always a defense.” What’s scarier, depending on the state, receipt of stolen property worth as little as $250 can count as a felony offense. Buying used gear online can be incredibly risky and keeping knowingly stolen gear (including “found” gear) is even worse.

Less savvy thieves will try and pawn gear but pawnshops are required to report all received inventory to the police. While serials and other identifying information is being checked, gear has to sit, off the market, in pawnshop storage until cleared. Relatively speaking, few stolen items end up at pawnshops. Most of it ends up online, where it is much harder for law enforcement to track, and most goods are sold within 30 minutes of being stolen. Pawnshops offer a safer alternative to Craigslist, overall, when purchasing used cameras and lenses.

Gear recovered by law enforcement is stored for quite awhile at most police stations, sitting in a kind of gear purgatory, and most officers try their best to contact the rightful owners. Eventually, if gear remains stored for too long it gets auctioned off. A personal anecdote: I’ve been told to check in periodically with local stations to inquire about my stolen Speedlights because police officers don’t “usually have the time to contact owners directly ” and stuff just sits. I was told this directly by an officer in San Francisco. So be proactive and follow up repeatedly.

Lenstag contributes to gear recovery in 2 key ways: through Lenstag Rescue, which checks pictures online to see if they were taken with stolen cameras and is powered by photographers like you. The second pipeline is through tips left on any of the items on our public Stolen Gear List. It happens often enough that we can’t get press reliably anymore since it’s so “normal” nowadays, but here is an example of press we got from a Lenstag Rescue recovery and a tip-based recovery. One recent case: we assisted with the recovery of approximately $30,000 worth of gear that was taken from a rental company (who wishes to remain anonymous while the thief awaits sentencing). We’re always assisting with new recoveries in multiple countries. The system gains strength through registration, so encourage your fellow shooters to sign up for free. The more gear that’s registered (and the more aware buyers are of the risks), the less likely thieves are able to quickly move gear into the hands of innocent photography/videography enthusiasts looking for a good deal.

Sources for this blog post:

Internet Journal Of Criminology
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
Is that online bargain a deal, or a steal?
our own research based on voluntary user info

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