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Photographer catches camera thief in Craigslist sting operation

When a San Francisco photographer discovered his stolen camera had turned up for sale on Craigslist, he turned Web sleuth, getting back his camera and assisting in the thief's arrest.

It all began when Jeff Hu and his roommate woke up one morning, after a packed St. Patrick's day house party that went on into the wee hours of the morning. There was the usual mess of cups and empty beer bottles and spills scattered between shifted furniture. But the camera Hu learned to shoot on? Gone.

Hu had lost his bike before, and knew that bike thieves in the San Francisco area made quick work of getting rid of their loot on Craigslist, so he decided to give the notorious classifieds website a check, just in case.

Sure enough, there it was.

"I didn't expect my camera to be there," Hu told NBC News. "I didn't think I would be that lucky to find it, but the first search I did … it showed up … in the same city, the day after it was stolen."

Hu recognized the camera, a Canon Rebel T2i, by scratch marks near its SD card slot. Suspiciously, the posting said the camera didn't come with a battery charger, or a lens case, or manual. Certain that it was his, Hu emailed the Craigslist poster asking to buy the instrument.

Then came Hu's first break: The Craigslist seller responded with a name. A quick Facebook search pulled up a person Hu recognized as someone he'd seen at his house, but hadn't spoken to, he said.

One last hurdle: How to prove the camera, marked with a unique serial number, was his? Hu found an application that seemed built for just such a purpose. StolenCameraFinder slurps up an uploaded photo and extracts the serial number of the camera that took it.

By now, Hu had filed a police report and spoken to a dispatcher. If Hu was able to meet the man with the camera, drop by the police department and see if any one can help, he was told.

A section of the police report that Hu filed.Jeff Hu

Hu agreed to meet the suspicious Craigslist contact at a local coffee shop to complete the trade. ("Cash ONLY," the Craigslist post read.) But first, Hu and a friend stopped by the police department. Two plainclothes cops in an undercover car escorted them to the coffee shop.

As planned, the camera and its thief both turned up. From there, the cops took over. "The guy had a fake gun on him so that would have been scary," Hu said.

In the end, the 22-year-old thief was arrested, and is being charged with one count of possession of stolen property. After matching up serial numbers and other proofs of ownership, Hu got his camera back from the police. "I was surprised that I was able to find all this information so easily," he said.

With his amateur sleuthing career now behind him, Hu says he now plans to go back to photographing his favorite macros and landscapes.

This story was updated at 12:30pm ET on March 29, 2013.

For a full account of the sting, read Hu's post onPeta Pixel.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.