In case you don't know it, cameras and lenses are prime theft targets. You may never think it's going to happen to you, but almost every day I hear from someone who is missing thousands of dollars worth of gear with no hope of getting it back.
As a rental company, we have lots of experience with preventing theft and recovering stolen items. I'm not going to give specifics about all the exact measures we take; that would be like leaving a blueprint for those who want to steal our gear. But we've learned a lot and have at least tried everything I'm going to talk about today.
As always, when I link to a product in this blog post it's simply because I like them. I don't accept 'affiliate fees' or sell my recommendations. Some of the things I'll describe are total overkill for someone who owns a camera and a couple of lenses, but could be quite useful for someone else who has most of their net worth and future income tied up in their equipment.
By the way, in case you are one of those people who just got a 'too good to be true' deal on a Craigslist or eBay lens, you might want to read the section about recovering stolen gear. In most states, if the original owner finds out you have their stolen lens they can take it back and don't have to pay you a dime. (For those of you who are thinking "over my dead body", I'll just say that's never necessary.)
First and foremost, if you don't have insurance, please look into it. The expense is minimal compared to the coverage you get. With most policies you not only get theft and loss coverage, but also damage insurance and even coverage of gear you've rented or borrowed. There are dozens of different companies offering photography insurance (Google is your friend). Be sure to compare rates and coverage, they vary quite a bit. Joining an organization like PPA can give you access to even more insurance options.
Some people get coverage through a rider on their homeowners or renters policies, but the cost and availability vary greatly depending on what company you're with. It's a convenient option if available, but not always the best option. If you make a claim or two for stolen photo equipment you may well end up finding your entire homeowners policy has been reclassified to higher risk or cancelled altogether. The chances of this vary depending on the company, but it's something worth looking into.
If you have fairly low exposure to theft, insurance may be all the protection you need or want. People at higher risk of getting equipment stolen (because of what you have, what you do, or where you do it) some further precautions might be in order. Insurance doesn't cover the inconvenience of being without equipment while the claim is settled, or help get back the images on your stolen memory cards.
When you buy something, chances are pretty high the manufacturer gives you the option to register yourself as owner. It can't hurt. It may help, especially if what your registering is an expensive piece of gear from a smaller company like Zeiss or RED. These usually have fairly personal relationships with their dealers and repair centers and will often send out the serial numbers of stolen gear to their networks. The more mass-market an item is, though, the less likely it is that this will be much help unless you need to actually prove ownership.
There are also online services that let you register your photo equipment by serial number and then make a report if it's ever stolen (or check to see if that great Craigslist deal you're about to pull the trigger on has been reported stolen). Stolenproperty.com has a simple serial number database that allows you to report your stolen gear and for potential buyers to check the list, as does stolenlostfound.org.
LensTag is a new one strictly for photo gear that should be opening very soon. With LensTag, your registration will be verified to ensure you actually have the equipment in your possession that you are registering. If you flag an item in your account as stolen/missing, LensTag will create a public page containing information about the item & contact form that gets indexed by search engines, letting the world know that the item is missing or stolen.
I encourage people to register their gear somewhere. Is it likely to get it back if it's stolen? Not yet, but if we all used them more it would be a lot more useful. Want another reason? If you haven't registered your gear and someone steals it then the thief has the option to register it and make it appear to be really his.
It goes without saying that you should also save all receipts for your equipment. If the receipt does not have a serial number for the equipment listed directly on it, make sure you also include a picture or other document that shows irrefutable proof that you own the equipment in question. The last thing you want to do is find your stolen equipment and not be able to prove that you own it.
You can't absolutely prevent theft, but there are things you can do that lessen your risks. Of course, the first thing is keeping your gear secured both when stored at home and when out shooting. NEVER send your photography gear in a checked bag if you can possibly avoid it; carry it on the plane with you. Don't set your backpack full of lenses down while you walk off to shoot an interesting scene 20 yards away, and all that other stuff.
But reality is we can't completely secure our gear all of the time. Wedding photographers, for example, have to set some gear down somewhere while they're shooting the wedding. A reasonably sized video shoot has gear scattered all around the set. Even on vacation, I can't sit down to eat without taking off my backpack full of gear.
Here are a few things I've found useful. None of them are going to absolutely prevent theft, but all can be useful (at least they make me feel better).
Wedding photographers, cinematographers, and photographers on busy sets with lots of equipment, simply can't keep all of their gear strapped to them at all times. Nothing's worse than coming back to where you left that Pelican case with the other 4 Zeiss CP.2 lenses and finding it's gone.
Proximity and motion alarms can give you a little piece of mind in these situations. The simplest form of alarm is a basic tilt or motion-detection alarm. Put it inside your case or bag and it's siren will emit a significant alarm if someone picks it up and walks off. A sturdy and reliable one is Tool Guard. It's made for alarming tool boxes but works just fine inside a large backpack, camera bag, or Pelican case. The on-off button is on a little black key fob that you carry so you can arm and disarm the alarm from a few feet away.
Have a jib, tripod and fluid head, or other tubular item you want to alarm? Get a bicycle motion alarm. There are tons of them available for less than $50. They're made to bolt around bicycle frame tubes, which works quite well on photography equipment with legs.
Proximity Smart Alarms
Smart phone and proximity alarms go a step further. I like hipKey because I have an iPhone, but there are similar devices for other phones. Download the App to your phone and put the dongle in your camera bag. You can set it to alarm if it the bag is moved, or if your phone and the bag become separated more than a certain distance. (I find the distance alarm quite useful because I have a habit of walking out of restaurants and leaving my backpack under the table.) You can set it just to buzz your phone, for the dongle to emit an audible alarm, or both.
GPS Alarm / Locators
There are a number of different GPS locating devices available, but my favorites are the PocketFinder and the Garmin GTU 10. They're small enough to tuck into the foam of a Pelican case, the lining of a large camera bag, or underneath the molded plastic of a supertelephoto case.
These are a more expensive items than a simple motion alarm. In addition to the purchase price (around $150) there is a monthly fee for GPS tracking on a proprietary app. Personally, I justify the expense partly because it's a multiple-use device. It's been hung on my 11-year old's neck during those times, like the community carnival, when he needs to make sure none of his peers know he has parents but we need to know where he is. It also spends a fair amount of time on my dog's collar.
These aren't worthwhile (and are too large) to protect a $600 camera with a kit lens, but if you have, say, a 600mm f/4 or a set of cinema lenses you want to protect they're worth considering. If you've ever had anything stolen, you know the police don't have recovering your lens as their top priority of the day. But if you can show them "my stolen lens is at 123 Main Street" chances are they'll be very interested (first in how you know that, then in getting it back). It can also be set as a proximity alarm, buzzing your phone if your equipment moves.
The pocket finder can be controlled remotely from a smartphone or iPad; you can set it to check in only occasionally to save battery life, but increase GPS location to every few minutes if you find your gear suddenly missing. It's not perfect - for example it may not be able to locate from inside a building (in my experience they can lock on from within a frame house or a car, but probably not within a high-rise apartment building). Obviously a thief could find the GPS unit and ditch it, but my (fairly extensive) experience with thieves is they're generally neither bright nor curious. If they steal something that comes in a nice case, they'll leave the case alone figuring it adds to the value.
Tagging Your Gear?
Tagging your gear may, or may not, be a good option for you. It provides two possible benefits. First, a thief may pass on theft-deterrent-labelled gear simply because it's harder to sell. Second, the label may help you recover stolen gear, either because someone has noticed it or because you can easily identify it as YOUR equipment. (If you think the police have a simple way to figure out that Canon 5DII serial number 123456789 belongs to John Doe, you are incorrect. That lens can sit in the recovered property room for a year.)
Some people are very hesitant to label their gear because it might hurt the resale value of their equipment. For people who buy and sell equipment frequently this may be a pertinent point. On the other hand, showing the theft-deterrent label and offering to transfer the registration with the sale might actually be a positive selling point. It might also help a transaction in other ways (I will transfer the theft-deterrent code to your name after you have accepted the item and found it satisfactory).
The best theft-proof labels are going to be obvious, and I'd also recommend you put a label on the outside of the case (and your camera bag), just hoping it might make a thief decide to move to a better target before he's made off with your gear.
If you decide to label your gear, it's best to choose a label that covers all bases. Bar code labels are smaller and these days you don't even need a separate device to read a bar code; your smart phone will do. A number of companies offer tamper proof bar code labels and websites where you can log on and register the items you've tagged with each barcode. If a law enforcement agency or reputable pawn shop owner calls or logs in, the company will notify you where your gear is and notify them it has been reported stolen.
There are dozens of brands, but I think the ones from STOP are excellent. Once applied they are almost impossible to remove. If a thief does manage to chisel them off, they leave an indelible tattoo that says "Stolen Property" in bright red. The company has a registration website where you can register your items by barcode, etc. They make labels as small as 2" by 3/4", which will work for most SLR cameras and lenses, but may be a bit too large for mirrorless gear. There are several other companies that make smaller, tamper resistant bar codes that will work for smaller items.
There also is the option of using a small bar code for future identification should your gear turn up missing. They can be put in inconspicuous places on the item -- thieves frequently scrape off or alter the serial numbers before selling the item, but may well miss a bar code. If you're handy, you can even put it inside of the lens mount or bottom plate of a camera. That does nothing to prevent theft, obviously, but it might increase your chance of recovery of a stolen item.
Immobilize makes a line of microdot-sized bar codes in kits that include large, removable "all items in here are traceable" stickers (for the outside of gear bags), along with a web based registration system. All of the microdot-size bar codes you purchase have a single number that you register. That way any stolen gear has the same traceable number, which simplifies things quite a bit if you get an entire camera bag full of gear stolen.
There are other, simpler options. You can buy felt-tip markers that write in invisible ink that only shows up under UV light, for example. (As a warning, I'm told bright summer sunlight can sometimes make UV-visible ink show up, so you probably don't want to write your phone number on the hood of your 500 f/4 lens. Or maybe you do.)
Unless you have lots of gear that might be stolen, RFID tags aren't as practical as simple labels. They do have one major advantage over labels, though. In theory, a person with a scanner can identify a tagged item several feet away. Let's imagine you're pretty sure you know who is in possession of your stolen equipment. A law-enforcement agent or private investigator with a scanner could positively identify that your lens is inside a camera bag or mounted to that tripod. I emphasize law-enforcement agent or other recovery professional because trying to reclaim stolen gear yourself is amazingly stupid. People get hurt that way. People get arrested for assault that way.
There are hundreds of RFID tags and readers available. Some tag-reader combinations can be read at fairly long distances (10 meters) but they require specialized equipment that's not widely available. More practical tags can only be read at distances of a couple of feet, but still can be worthwhile. Tags similar to the chips implanted in pets are available at reasonably low cost ($10 - $15 per tag or so) and can be read by equipment available almost anywhere.
For example, if you buy an expensive guitar or even surfboard, there's a good chance it has an implanted security RFID chip (they simply drill a small hole, put the chip in, and glue the hole shut before they paint and finish the item). These are truly tiny devices and much less likely to be found by a thief than a barcode. Snagg sells these devices and maintains a website where you can register anything that you've 'chipped'.
There are a ton of places you can put such a chip in camera gear: make a small slit and push it inside the rubber padding around a viewfinder, glue it inside a lens hood, glue it between the straps of your camera where it folds back and forth. If you're even slightly handy you can open the rear mount of a lens or any of the plates of a camera and glue it inside (or your local camera reapair shop can do it for you in about 5 minutes). Again, I wouldn't spend this kind of money protecting my point-and-shoot, but do consider it with a piece of expensive gear.
After the Gear is Stolen
Reporting Your Gear as Stolen
If your gear does get stolen, the quicker you get to work the better your chance of recovery. Make a police report immediately. In busy police jurisdictions they aren't going to be nearly as excited about your theft as you are. Insist on making a report, even if you have to travel to the precinct to do it. Make sure the report includes serial numbers and information about any theft deterrent measures, like tags or barcodes. This is the most important thing you can do because chances are the numbers will get entered into a database of stolen items somewhere. That's probably all the investigation you're going to get. The NCIS van is not going to pull up to lift footprints and do chemical analysis of the crime scene.
You might want to check and see if the area had any video surveillance. If there was, tell the police, it may (or may not) perk their interest. You might also ask the security camera's owner if they'd be willing to review their footage for you.
Locating Your Gear
In most cases, the person stealing your equipment isn't going to be camera savvy. A guy who breaks into your car or house and takes your camera bag probably isn't going to look to the major photography forums as a first resort for selling stolen gear. Watch the local Craigslist and eBay like a hawk. Thieves put stuff up quickly. We've actually had items 'rented' from us listed for sale on Craigslist before they were even delivered.
It's worthwhile to search the local pawnshops, too. I would not march in announcing that you are looking for your stolen gear. Once you make that announcement, you've told the pawnshop owner that any information he gives out can only cause him problems. Just ask, for example, if they have any Nikon D800s (or whatever it is you are missing). Most shops can't sell an item for a certain amount of time after they accept it, so they may tell you "we'll have one we can sell in 2 weeks" or something similar.
If it was a camera that was stolen, remember the serial number may well be in the EXIF data. Search online to see if any photos have been posted with it after the theft. Stolencamerafinder.com and CameraTrace.com are awesome for this. Both found about a dozen of the 50 or so images I'd posted with my latest camera in about a second. They also keep a registry of stolen cameras and Camera Trace also sells permanent tags like those discussed above. It's not much help for lenses, but we've recovered lots of cameras this way (unfortunately, usually from the person who bought them on Craigslist, not the original thief).
The best tip when trying to locate your stolen gear is: Be patient.
In common law countries such as the U.S., there is a general rule of law called the nemo dat rule. To boil it down, it means that a person who has no ownership title in the goods cannot give title to a purchaser, even if the purchaser is unaware that the seller does not have title. What does that mean for you? Generally (there are exceptions, and every state has slightly different laws), it means that if the thief sells your equipment to someone else, even if that person has no reason to know the equipment was stolen, it still belongs to you. Sure, some poor guy who bought it off Craigslist is going to get screwed, but that's the risk you take when you buy used gear from untrusted sources.
That should also be a lesson to everyone out there: unless you are positive you are dealing with the original owner of equipment, there is always the chance you are buying stolen equipment and that the original owner might come calling. Often times, when you see big resellers on eBay and the like, they've bought their equipment on forums and on Craiglist, and are simply reselling it on eBay, which means it is just as likely to be stolen as it is if you are buying it directly from the sketchy guy on Craigslist.
If you find your stolen items listed for sale, do not take action yourself, even if you are Billy BadAss and have a posse of equally bad buddies. Just Google "Craigslist shootings" to see how that can work out - the last time I checked there were about 15 pages of news articles on Craigslist-deals-gone-bad that ended in gunplay. Notify the police. If the police aren't interested you can consider hiring a private investigator or bounty hunter to make contact. If the equipment involved isn't worth their fee, you need think long and hard about why you'd put yourself at risk over that amount of money.
If the police aren't interested in a 'sting' and you don't want to hire a PI, you can notify Craigslist or eBay of the stolen items listed for sale. They may take the add down or flag the account internally. It won't get you your gear back but may inconvenience the thief.
If the items have been pawned, your rights vary greatly depending upon the state's laws. If you find your equipment in a pawn shop, and you've followed our instructions then you've already filed a police report and you've got documentation in the form of purchase receipts and photographs that can positively identify the equipment as your own.
You'll need to contact the police and tell them the situation. Be wary here, many police will tell you your only option is to buy back the equipment from the pawnbroker. While that may be true, that is not necessarily true. That is the default answer from the police because most items that are pawned don't have unique serial numbers like camera equipment. Unfortunately, while you might not have to buy it back from the pawnbroker, you may be better off doing so than dealing with the headache of trying to get it back from them otherwise. Depending on the state and their pawn laws, it will usually take hiring a lawyer and having a court hearing to get your equipment back from the broker.
If you find your stolen gear in the possession of a photographer who has either bought it second-hand (or perhaps is the thief) you still have options. Remember the nemo dat rule! From our experience, if you find someone who has innocently bought your stolen equipment, you'll have a greater chance of success if you act nicely. Asking the person for whatever information they have on the thief is a good way to start. If the person has used Paypal or some other protected form of payment when they bought the equipment from the thief, they may be able to recover their payment directly from the payment processor. Offering a reward often eases the sting for that person and makes them cooperative.
If they aren't cooperative you still have options, but you need to decide if they are worthwhile. If the police don't want to get involved, you'll need to consult a lawyer to determine exactly how to go about regaining your equipment in your state. You'll spend some money, but in the case of expensive equipment it may be worthwhile.
Roger Cicala and Drew Cicala, J. D.