Why Cameras Are Easier to Steal and What You Can Do About it

Why Cameras Are Easier to Steal and What You Can Do About it

My business insurance has rocketed in price this year with a 33% increase. Yet, I would not do without it. Like anything with monetary value, cameras can be targeted by thieves. That risk is growing.

Google the Serial Killer

Stolen digital cameras were once more easily recovered because of their serial numbers embedded in the metadata. It could be searched for as soon as a photo taken by it was uploaded to the internet. The website Stolen Camera Finder helped track cameras down in this way. However, things have changed. I entered the serial number of the older of my cameras into its database, and it found no reference to the camera online, despite being used to post hundreds of photos on various websites. So, next, I entered the number into Google and several other search engines. My camera no longer appears in the search results as it once did.

I reached out to the owner of Stolen Camera Finder, but sadly, got no reply when I wrote this.

The disappearance of serial numbers from search results may be because of privacy and security concerns; serial numbers can be used for tracking people. Or it is because most search engines are skewed toward making sales and not providing helpful information. Whatever the reason, this change makes it far easier to sell stolen cameras. That, in turn, makes them a greater target for theft.

Of course, most people now upload their photos to social media. Typically, those services strip the serial numbers and other metadata from images, thus making photo ownership harder to prove and increasing the chances of the pictures being stolen. It also makes it harder to identify the camera that took them.

Once was a time when one could be assured that the cameras sold by large and reputable secondhand retailers were not stolen because they could check ownership. They would search for the serial number, find images shot by that camera, and if the photographer were not the same person as was selling it, alarm bells would ring.

I tried to discuss this issue of the serial numbers no longer being searchable with two of the big companies specializing in used photography equipment, but neither came back with a reply. Read into that what you will.

People do get caught, but it's getting harder to protect your property.
(This photo has been heavily edited to protect the identity of the person being arrested.)

Lenstag to the Rescue

There is good news, however. It’s possible to register your camera with an excellent free database operated by Lenstag. The database includes the serial numbers of some stolen equipment. It is not definitive, but if you are buying a used camera, it is worth checking there to see if the lens is marked as stolen. I highly recommend registering your camera and lenses as it will help fight against criminals, support the legitimate businesses who refer to the database, plus help protect other photographers.

I spoke by email with Trevor Sehrer at Lenstag:

Lenstag's overall goal is to end the ability of criminals to sell stolen gear by making it undesirable to buy and therefore steal... I think of it like copyright for gear. If photographers see a used item they're interested in is stolen, they're less likely to buy it since it'll be harder to resell in the future due to it being flagged as stolen. And as has happened in some cases, photographers who unknowingly bought stolen gear without checking Lenstag first had it taken away by police and returned to its rightful owner – even across state lines. Given this, I don't see how anyone would risk buying stolen items, ever.

A big part of how Lenstag works is visually verifying every single serial number like the DMV does with VIN numbers for car titles. I do the verifications myself and around 20% of all serial numbers sent in to Lenstag are mistyped or some other number that's not the actual serial number on the item. I correct it if I can or reject the verification request and send it back to the user with some notes on what to fix. This means that all other registries – Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica, etc — that don't do this have bad data and are unreliable at best. At worst, a photographer could report a stolen lens with a mistyped serial number into, say, Canon Professional Services, and later on a photographer sends the lens that actually has the mistyped serial number into Canon for repair and they lose their lens.

Some innocent victims are still losing second-hand cameras they have bought because they are confiscated by the police, who identified them as stolen. If they could check the serial number first, they could have avoided that loss.

Some photographers attach security ID labels to their cameras. These hard-to-remove tags act as a deterrent and make the return of stolen property more likely. However, they may affect the resale value of the camera if that is important to the photographer.

How Cameras Mostly Get Stolen

Most cameras get stolen as opportunistic crimes. So, simple measures like not leaving it in full sight in a car, keeping it on your person in public places, and using a reinforced strap that cannot be cut are simple measures that reduce your chances of a camera being snatched. The Sun-Sniper Strap Pro can help prevent this kind of robbery. In some parts of the world, it’s not unusual for thieves to approach you, often from behind, slash the strap with a knife, and then run off with your camera.

The Sun Sniper Strap Pro is reinforced with wire to help prevent it being cut by thieves.

Avoiding Robbery When Travelling

Being robbed or having possessions stolen can be a harrowing experience. Many years ago, I was in the Maasai Market in Nairobi, Kenya. Back then, my friends who lived locally called it Nairobbery. I heard a commotion. There was a large crowd of people gathered around a young boy. They were beating and kicking him while the police looked on. The locals turned on the boy after he had snatched a handbag from a tourist, who had shouted, “Thief!” Eventually, the police officers dragged his body and threw him into the rear of a caged truck. The woman victim was crying. Her bag contained the equivalent of $30, and her shouting about the theft had caused the probable death of a hungry child. The bright white bag would have been an obvious target.

Smaller camera bodies are less noticeable to thieves. So, consider something smaller for your travels instead of that full frame monster. Sensor and lens technology is so good these days that Micro Four Thirds cameras produce outstanding image quality. Their footprint is far smaller too. Besides being more discreet, they are more convenient.

Micro Four Thirds cameras are discrete. This model is small enough to slip into my coat pocket, so excellent for traveling.

Using a side sling instead of a neck strap makes cameras more inconspicuous. I remove the brand labels from the straps. Camera bags are easily identifiable to robbers too. Besides wanting to carry minimal equipment, it’s one of the reasons I won’t use one. A simple discrete backpack with built-in security features such as a slash-proof lining will protect your camera and other valuables.

Precautions to Prevent Robbery

Prevention is always best. Where I live, I happily head out at night with my camera. But there are places not far from me where I would not risk that alone. So, I take a friend with me.

Plan where you are going, choosing roads and paths with plenty of people and CCTV coverage. Valuables such as mobile phones, wallets, and cameras attract thieves, so try to keep them out of sight. If you are out with your camera, walk confidently and with purpose, as you are less likely to be targeted. Stay aware of your surroundings.

Never place your camera or other valuables on a table in a café. Use licensed taxis that have been booked by phone or through an app.

Custom camera bags do a great job, but they advertise to the world what they are carrying and can make you a target for robbery.

What to Do if You Are Being Robbed

Fstoppers regularly has stories about photographers being robbed. It’s important to visualize what you would do in any emergency, as it prevents panic; it is why workplaces have fire drills. Knowing what to do if you are robbed reduces the risk of you being hurt.

If someone tries to rob you, don’t try to defend your property. It’s just a camera and, hopefully, insured. Your safety is paramount. The robber’s adrenaline levels will be through the roof, and they will be as nervous as you. Stay calm. Move slowly and steadily and follow their directions. Give them only what they want and explain why you are making the movements, e.g., “I am going to release the clip on this strap so I can hand it over.”

It is in your interest, and the robbers, for the experience to be over as quickly as possible. So, follow their instructions to the letter, and don’t offer anything extra or help. If they demand twenty dollars, give them that, not fifty. If they want your camera, don’t hand them your wallet too. All police forces recommend not introducing a weapon into the confrontation; your camera is not worth endangering someone’s life. If they have a gun, assume it is loaded.

It might be your pride and joy, but it's not worth becoming the victim of a violent crime.

Tell the robber if there are any surprises. If you are meeting someone, let the robber know.

Be observant. Take notes in your head of their appearance. Whom do they look like? What’s their height and build? How old are they? What color eyes and hair do they have? Are there any distinguishing features? If there is more than one robber, do they use names? Do they appear drunk or high? If they use a weapon, what does that look like?  

Once they have what they want, offer to walk away. Go immediately to somewhere safe, where there are many people, and report the crime. Ask someone to stay with you while you report it.

For professional photographers, at events and photoshoots, it is always worth considering regularly swapping memory cards from cameras and keeping them in a separate secure place. You can replace the camera if it’s stolen, but reshooting the event might not be possible.

Your local police department will offer advice on what to do if you are robbed, and I recommend familiarizing yourself with that.

Protecting Your Camera From Burglary

Cameras are also targeted in burglaries. So, besides the standard building security precautions and keeping them locked in secure safes is a measure worth considering. However, if a burglar has entered a building, standard doors to rooms and offices are easily broken, and one kick can break them. So, consider leaving those internal doors unlocked.

Opportunistic burglaries happen in the daytime when external doors and windows are open. So, when possible, lock those.

Most police forces give similar advice about preventing burglary. If you arrive at your property and think an intruder is there, stay calm. Verify, if you can, whether there is anyone there. In a previous role, I attended a workplace several times at night because the alarm had been activated. Once, I could smell them as soon as I opened the door; it was the stench of alcohol and stale cigarettes. I stopped, listened, and then quietly retreated to call the police.

If possible, don’t confront the burglar. Verify their presence and, if possible, quietly escape the scene. If you cannot escape, shutting yourself in a room and barricading the door with furniture may be the next best option. Then, call the police.

If you are face to face with the intruder, your actions will be like those I mentioned above when confronted with a robbery. Follow their instructions. Act calmly and talk quietly, keeping conversation to a minimum. Inform them of any surprises like expected visitors. Immediately afterward, call the police, don’t touch anything, and take notes. Again, your local police will likely give specific advice, so check their website.

Have you ever had the harrowing experience of being robbed or burgled? Are there extra precautions you take? Other photographers will find it very helpful to hear about your experience in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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I have an Apple Tag hidden in each of my camera bags. If the robber keeps the camera in the bag, I will have no problem finding it. Thankfully, I have not had the opportunity to use them yet. I also have Apple Tags hidden on my electric bike and in each of my vehicles.

"I will have no problem finding it"

And when you know their locations, what would you do next?

It seems you live in California, do you think police would do anything to help you besides giving you a police report number for you to get your insurance coverage?

That's an interesting idea. Sadly, criminals are also becoming savvy to this. Also, the new ones now emit a sound when they are not with the owner to stop them from being used for tracking people. Consequently, they will get discovered. Having a similar system built into the cameras would be great.

I am glad to live in Europe. There are criminals here but they do not try to rob you using firearms
. I prefer to travel in rural areas like the Alps or the Loire Valley. I do not know why but there are few bad guys there. I think they like big cities more.

Yes, criminals find it easier to hide in crowds. Also, although social deprivation exists in rural areas, there are greater concentrations in urban areas. That breeds criminal behavior. Furthermore, organizing criminals into gangs is harder to do in the countryside when people are more spread out. Thank you for signing up to comment.

The link to lenstag is corrupt (http://https//www.lenstag.com/). You need to add a colon after https: https://www.lenstag.com/

Thanks for letting us know. It'll get updated.

Very interesting article! Michael Dougherty BRILLIANT!!!!!!! I have a Samsung phone, but I have a MAC laptop. (dont ask) . Can I use this and connect it using my laptop? I ADORE this idea!

You can, but there are limitations to this idea. The new tags emit a beep when they are away from the owner. That's to prevent unwanted tracking by stalkers. The tags will soon be found.

Samsung's tags don't emit a beep unless that's how you configure it.
Not as many compatible phones out there for reporting, but a lot more users than Tile has and in my limited experience, good enough.

The concept of "secure by default" has existed for at least 20 years. My DJI drone registers me as the owner the first time I use it. If someone steals it, they can't sell it as an intact drone; they'd have to sell it for parts, which is much more labor-intensive and far less profitable.

All our smartphones, by default, require authentication, support tracking, and encrypt all the data they store. Our cars have locks, and generally also tracking, and the VINs are registered to make them difficult to sell. These techniques have drastically reduced crime against the owners, not by eliminating all possibility of crime, nor with huge inconvenience to the owners.

Cameras? Absolutely no security by default, and not a single camera manufacturer has acknowledged the problem after years of oragnized efforts from a group of photographers and influencers. If someone takes your camera, they can sell it intact and fully-functional, not in some shady black market, but on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or a pawn shop. Wherever. They get the same price you would if you were to sell it yourself. They also get full access to the photos & videos you've taken, even if they were private or confidential.

And as a result this makes photographers more and more of a target. I personally use AirTags and record my serial numbers, but the only way to reduce crime is to make cameras "secure by default." We must make the average camera theft riskier and less profitable. Unfortunately, "secure by default" requires cooperation with the camera manufacturers, and they do not care about this.

Interesting thoughts. Thanks.

Maybe the camera manufacturers understand that adding "default security" will just increase the cost of cameras but will never help if cameras are stolen?

The point of built-in security is to make cameras a less attractive target, not to aid in recovery. Tony is right on point with this. Camera manufacturers should do more. Unfortunately, the CEOs of these Japanese companies are probably in their 60s or 70s and likely still using flip phones,

I don't think that's a fair or reasoned response.

If the manufacturers were to make a camera turn into a brick when stolen, how would you do this? Especially without draining the battery? Photographers always worry about battery life, especially with mirrorless...

Off the top of my head, BT BLE checking in with a "registered" BT device like a phone or watch every x-minutes of use would probably work but it does increase the price by perhaps $5 at manufacture (which means $50-200 for the consumer)...

Then there's the problem of what if the camera bricks because the registered device(s) have flat batteries? Sure you could have it unbrick when a registered device is in range, but what are we accomplishing? Any thief in the know will just take your devices (phones, watches, etc) as well and deregister your device before binning your phone...

Use a pin/pw to deregister devices perhaps? Well, how usable is that going to be. You won't do that on the camera, too small an input area, so have to use a phone. Great, another app and something else to learn/remember...

Usability is usually the enemy of security.

I think a system could be much simpler than that, Jon. Use biometrics to log into a camera. Tie the individual parts to the camera's serial number so that a stolen camera cannot be parted out. (To be clear, I mean "simpler" for the user.) And, yes, that would add to the cost of the camera but at least photographers could eventually walk around San Francisco again without getting robbed.

There definitely should be security measures built into cameras by manufacturers. This isn't 1970, it's 2023 for cryin' out loud. It would serve a very useful purpose (discourage robbery and theft), most people want this or would want this, and the tech for doing this has becomes less expensive over time. So "it would increase the cost of the cameras" is not a valid argument to me. That's like saying Oh don't add IBIS because it will increase the cost of the cameras or Don't add autofocus because it will increase the cost of the cameras. If phone manufacturers can do it then camera manufacturers should be able to figure out something that will work.

"Don't add autofocus because it will increase the cost of the cameras."

Adding the auto focus feature increased the cost of cameras; but what was more important it increased the cameras' usability and increased the revenue of camera manufacturers.

Let's be realistic.

Adding anti-theft features would increase only the cost of cameras.

Nobody will send a SWAT team to get it back if the location of a stolen camera is known; registered or secured devices will be de-registered and de-secured for a fistfull amount of bucks; etc.

Unfortunately though.

What a contrast between the Chinese, who are constantly innovating and moving forward, and the Japanese, who seem to have to be dragged forward kicking and screaming.

I aways carry and it a thief wants anything they will die at some point .
Especially breaking into the house which is alatmed.
They die then the coroner comes to collect the body.
I have ceased overseas travel due to excessive crime because thieves know youare unarmed. I was robbed in Colombia once and beat the thief and then the police took over and beat him and hauled him off. It felt good getting a crook off the streets.
Bottom line I tefuse to be a sheep and a victim.

The more people carry guns, the more innocent people die.

A totally false and not provable statement.

Prove it.


"Our review of the academic literature found that a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries. Case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the U.S., where there are more guns, both men and women are at a higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.

Hepburn, Lisa; Hemenway, David. Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417-40."

And the criminals are unarmed?

I, too, carry wherever legal. I go too many places alone and at night, and for lawful purposes, but there are others that choose to be there for nefarious purposes. I am ready. Hopefully I never have to use what I carry, but I am prepared and trained in any case.

Ivor I agree, if you get robbed, it’s just a camera not worth the risk. And fun to see how you slipped your love for the OM system in there.

It was the smallest, high quality ILC I could find to illustrate the point I was making.

I think the bit about bag choice is very important, I have a lowepro rucksack that looks very much like a normal bag, it's grubby and disguises that it has my Phase one camera in it. It also has a lightbug tracker in it, as do many of my cases. So if someone does run off with it, I have some chance of getting it back

Camera makers could put an end to this with a simple lock code screensaver that could be enabled, and set to activate after a certain period of inactivity.

I have said this for years, that these cameras need some kind of pin entered so they wont up unless the pin is entered.unless they hold a knife to your and demand the pin. Just like the cars being ripped off with these transmitting key fobs they need to step up and fix it just like the camera makers.