Snapped: camera thieves caught

Kevin Hayes feels like the luckiest man alive.

Three years ago, the 43-year-old Melbourne man was in Canberra and lost the $5000 Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera his wife bought him for his birthday, and he had all but given up hope of getting it back when he found out about the website stolencamerafinder.com M

The site helped him track the lost or stolen camera to a man who works at a Sydney tattoo parlour a few weeks ago and NSW Police have since collected it. Hayes expects to have his camera back any day now, and NSW Police confirmed the story when contacted by this website.

Every photo you take with your digital camera contains hidden information about the images (such as the settings used to take it) and the camera (such as the make, model and unique serial number used to identify it). This is known as "exif" data.

The stolencamerafinder site is able to crawl the net for photos that were taken using virtually any given digital camera (except Sony models) and this has enabled people to track down many stolen cameras.

Matt Burns, a 30-year-old software engineer from Bristol, England, said he created the site in 2009 but it wasn't until about April this year, when Burns improved the site while on a holiday in Cambodia, that its surged from 30-50 hits a day to around 50,000 unique visitors a day.

"I've been contacted by a police officer in the US that said they used my site as the initial evidence that ultimately caught a burglar with $20,000 of stolen property," Burns, who now works on the site full-time, said.

"I'm working closely with the police and CEOP in the UK. They have been able to use my site to track down the creators of indecent images of children."

'No recourse, no insurance'

Hayes, the head of learning and development at a Melbourne firm, was in Canberra on business three years ago. He was walking down the street carrying his camera in a day pack that was attached to another bag, but within about 20 seconds of him walking, he realised his camera bag was missing.

"There was no recourse, there was no insurance - immediately after the camera was stolen within half an hour I was down at the local police station in Canberra reporting it missing and so on, but after that it was a matter of getting over it," he said.

Hayes said losing the camera "was quite an emotional thing" and his wife was unimpressed. It took him two years to throw away the boxes for the lost camera and buy a new one - a cheaper model.

He said he resigned himself to "having learned a very expensive life lesson" but a few weeks ago he mentioned in passing on the Whirlpool forum that he had a camera stolen.

One of the other users of the site told him about stolencamerafinder.com, and he immediately went on to the site and used an old photo he had taken with the stolen camera to search for other photos published online that were taken with the same camera.

'Oh my god, I've found it'

The search came up with the Flickr account of a Sydney tattoo artist who had been using the camera to take photos of his work. The Flickr account listed the man's name and the address of his shop.

"I was absolutely stunned - I was upstairs in the computer room, ran downstairs to my wife ... and said 'oh my god I've found it, I've found the camera'," he said.

"It was just the most incredible feeling - I just couldn't believe it to be honest, that it was as simple as just typing in a serial number."

The man who was in possession of the camera, who Hayes has decided not to name, had even published a photo of himself on Facebook posing in the mirror holding the camera.

Hayes collected the evidence and approached Canberra police for his incident number from three years ago, and then passed all the information along with his original receipt on to Melbourne police, who forwarded it to NSW Police in Dee Why.

"Amazingly, the bureaucracy kind of worked," Hayes said.

The man in possession of the camera admitted to NSW Police that he had it, saying he bought the camera from a friend for $1000 but did not know it was stolen.

"The police believe he doesn't know who stole the camera," Hayes said.

Close call

The tattoo artist surrendered the camera to NSW Police last Wednesday and Hayes expects it to be back in his possession soon.

"If he had said I don't have that camera, that effectively would have been the end of it," Hayes said, adding police told him they wouldn't be able to obtain a search warrant without proof the man still possessed the camera, or knowledge of its exact location.

"If he had been so minded he could've said I gave away that camera six months ago or I lost it myself, and that effectively would've been the end of the investigation."

Amazingly, the tattoo artist even surrendered a new lens he had bought for the camera after the original one it came with broke.

"I'm anticipating that I will be able to arrange for the camera to get back to Melbourne in January," Hayes said.

Countless anecdotes

In addition to Hayes, there are many other examples of people tracking down lost cameras using stolencamerafinder.com.

"One of the more interesting stories came from South Africa," Burns said.

"After having his camera stolen, Nik decided to sell the charger in the local classifieds. He then told the guy that bought it about my site. A few days later, the guy that bought the charger rang him back because he realised he had bought the stolen camera."

Burns said he created the site after he was burgled about four years ago and lost a pair of point-and-shoot cameras. His girlfriend had just broken her leg and didn't use the deadlock, so insurance didn't cover them.

"The thought that our cameras with priceless photos on them were just going to be sold in a pub somewhere for peanuts left me pretty mad," said Burns.

"I'm a software engineer and had a little head-scratch as to how I could track the cameras down."

Burns had his solution after learning that more and more cameras were recording their serial numbers on photos. He created the site in 2009 but it didn't take off until earlier this year.

"In September 2010 my girlfriend and I sold most of our possessions (including the flat!) and went on a 11-month trip around the world that we had been planning for years," Burns said.

"In April 2011 we spent a few weeks in Cambodia where my girlfriend was teaching in a school for poor children. While she was doing that I dusted off a very tiny netbook I had with me and made some improvements to the way Stolen Camera Finder works."

Harnessing the 'cloud'

The popularity of the site surged when it was picked up by blogs and Twitter users. Burns hasn't ever needed to do any marketing, and operating the site is relatively inexpensive as it is hosted on Google App Engine.

He said his site was a very database-intensive application but running it online, in the "cloud", provided a seamless experience. Burns said he now has multiple web crawlers being run by his community and on Amazon's cloud-computing architecture.

The site doesn't work with stolen mobile phones because there are no phones that store their serial number in photos, Burns said.

There are privacy implications - you could feasibly use the site to stalk people by finding all of their photos around the web. But Burns said he was not exposing any information that wasn't already public, and it was a bit like punching your name into Google and finding all the websites that mention you.

"After I was burgled I bought myself my first DSLR [camera] and have since become a keen photographer," Burns said.

"If I didn't get burgled I probably would never have written the site either. Looking back, it was one of the best things that's happened."