Maureen Silliman felt her empty pocket and gulped: Her new $300 iPod must have bounced out as she ran to catch a train. While she sobbed, her boyfriend suggested a message on the lost-and-found section of Craigslist, an online bazaar of classified ads.
"No," the 24-year-old Silliman said. "Nobody would ever turn in an iPod."
Her boyfriend posted the message anyway. Within 24 hours, Silliman's iPod was back.
In an increasingly cynical world, there are still places where people try to do the right thing. Everyday on Internet message boards, honest folks post notes about valuables they found: cash, bank cards, diamond bracelets, engagement rings, wedding bands, digital cameras, and even a cockatoo valued at $1,200.
In turn, when there is no place left to look for something missing, the desperate sometimes take the longest of longshots and look online themselves.
Occasionally, it works for both sides. People such as Silliman get back their iPod, still loaded with Radio Head and Broken Social Scene.
The impulse to be honest doesn't surprise Lawrence M. Hinman, the director of The Values Institute at the University of San Diego.
"I think we perceive ourselves as being much worse than we actually are," Hinman said. "There are people who live lives of quiet honesty."
Take Monique Peddle, 48, in Hollywood, Fla., who posted a note online when she found a diamond studded gold bracelet that she could have just as easily slipped quietly in her pocket. Or Blake Facente, 30, who also turned to Craigslist when he discovered a Dell Inspiron laptop leaning against his building in San Francisco.
The same for Agnes Satoorian, 27, who climbed into a cab in Boston last month and found a pricey digital camera that another rider had left behind.
"I know that pain," said Satoorian, who had recently lost her own camera loaded with sentimental pictures. "I decided I would try to make it right for someone."
Craig Newmark, the namesake and founder of Craigslist, said that the company added the lost-and-found message board in March 2003 after they noticed a proliferation of people looking for things that they were missing.
"The culture of trust is key, and the fact is that we work really hard at that," said Newmark, 53, who now has Web sites in 190 cities that boast more than 10 million users a month.
That means everyday there are new lost-and-found posts. Like the drawer in a school secretary's office where missing scarves wait to be claimed, the message boards accumulate a disparate collection of goods.
The three teeth — including a molar with a filing that needed replacing — pick up in downtown Honolulu. The $100 bill found on a sidewalk on the Las Vegas strip. The man in Copenhagen who lost his ex-wife. Or the New Yorker who misplaced her clean-shaven cowboy and implored: "If found please send him to Queens."
In the lost column in Dublin, Ireland, a post under the heading, "$1 Million US reward," has a link to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted poster for Boston fugitive mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.
"I just want him caught," said the post's author, reached through e-mail, who declined to elaborate or give his name.
Other posts are authentic, and even touching.
The 39-year-old woman in Frankfurt, Germany, looking for her birth mother (Bridgitte Siglinde Stolba). The Homestead, Fla., mother searching for a lost dog named Sparky that detects her 17-year-old epileptic son's seizures and barks for help. The 1-carat diamond engagement ring that slipped off a woman's finger in the hills outside Berkeley, Calif.
Success of the Lost and Found is difficult to measure. Craigslist does not track its sites, and the free posting are only valid for 30 days.
But as stories about triumphs like Silliman's iPod circulate, more people keep playing the odds.
Last Fourth of July, scuba diver Stephen Klink found a solid platinum men's wedding band buried in sand beneath 30 feet of water off Cape Cod. Klink, 36, recently posted a note on the Boston-area Craigslist.
"It's a long shot, but I figured it's worth a try," Klink said from his home in Hillsdale, N.J. "Some married guy somewhere is getting whopped on because he lost his wedding ring."