How Vegas luck returned my lost $1200 camera (and how to keep from losing your camera, phone or MP3 player forever)

Since it's President's Day (a national holiday in the US), we have the day off here at CNET Networks (the parent company to ZDNet). A good day to get caught up on a few items and publish some of those nagging blog posts that you keep meaning to finish off but never do.

Since it's President's Day (a national holiday in the US), we have the day off here at CNET Networks (the parent company to ZDNet). A good day to get caught up on a few items and publish some of those nagging blog posts that you keep meaning to finish off but never do. The one I've been meaning to publish has to do with what you could do to make sure that, if you lose your digital camera, you might actually get it back. 

CES started off pretty much like any other trade show that I've been to in Las Vegas over the last 16 years. I knew I'd need a head start on coverage. So, even though the trade show, like other shows, started on Monday, I left on Saturday morning. Another reason the head start was necessary was that this time, we were going to be throwing together more of a multimedia package from the show. Whereas with previous events, I mostly did text and still image coverage, we were looking to add video and lots of it. We ended up doing 28 separate videos over the course of 4 days and they weren't just your garden variety roll-tape-&-upload-to-YouTube kind.

To do the video thing right, we (multimedia Web producer Matt Conner and I) dragged a lot of equipment to Vegas with us. We had large suitcases and boxes packed with video gear, audio gear, editing machines, batteries, chargers, lights. You name it. We had it. Little did we know the role that having all that gear would play in the recovery of my Nikon D70 once I lost it.  After waiting on a Las-Vegas-airport-cab-line-from-Hell for a taxi, we realized that an ordinary cab with an ordinary trunk would not do. With all of our gear, only a van would do. The cab coordinator shuffled us off to a special spot where a van pulled up and moments later we were on our way to the Excalibur (cheap rooms with wired hi-speed Internet access). Along the way, I set the Nikon D70 down in the cab and it wasn't until we were checking-in that I asked Matt where the camera was. "You had it last" he said (and he was right). I ran outside. The cab and the camera were gone. 

All sorts of images whirred through my head. A happy cabbie for whom Christmas just arrived late. Or maybe it was his next set of passengers who spotted it and said nothing as they slid it into their bags. "The receipt!" I thought. I took it out. It was one of those generic receipts that all the cabbies hand out during the hi-tech trade shows. One with an adverstisement for some computer company. It offered no information about the cab company or the cabbie. Not only must there be dozens of cab companies in Las Vegas, all the cabs, even the vans, look pretty much the same. Dejected and knowing I had a very unpleasant phone call to make to my wife, I sulked back to the check-in line in the Excalibur. CES was off to an extremely bad start (not to mention that getting still images for my coverage was no longer a possibility). 

But then, a stroke of luck. On our way to our first interview (after checking in to the Excalibur), we told the next cabbie what happened and he asked what the cab looked like. We said it was a van (remember? we needed a van for all that gear). As it turns out, although 99 percent of the van cabs in Las Vegas appear to belong to one of six different cab companies, all six of those cab companies are actually one big cab conglomerate that use the same headquarters, dispatchers and lost and found. Even better, the cabbie pointed to a windshield-mounted camera in the cabs that's always on and that, in addition to protecting cabbies, keeps them honest. The cabbie told us that if a cab driver keeps a found item and they're spotted doing that on camera, they'll be blacklisted from driving a cab again in Las Vegas. 

So I called the one company to find out if anybody turned my camera in. "Sorry" I was told. "We can't tell you that. You'll have to call back at 9am on Monday when the people who run the lost and found are here." Time seemed to slow down for those next 40 our so hours. 

Monday morning. 9:00.  I dial the direct number to the cab's lost and found and ask if a Nikon digital camera was turned it. "Yes, we have it." I headed over to the lost and found to discover that I'm not alone. In addition to a large pile of cell phones, several digital SLR cameras where grouped together on the floor. One of them was mine. Relief. 

Talk about luck.

Then, as I exited the building, I realized that digital cameras are like luggage at the airport. A lot of them look the same. Was it possible this was someone else's D70? So, I called up the pictures in the camera to see if they were my photos (they were) and that's when the idea hit me like a brick in the head. 

If you own a digital camera or a cell phone, in addition to permanently marking it in some way (like engraving some ID info into it), another good idea is to take out a white piece of paper and, with a thick magic marker, write a short message that says "Reward if you find this camera. Please call me at 555-555-5555." Then, take a picture of that piece of paper and never delete it from your camera. This way, if someone finds the camera and they're smart enough to check the pictures in it, they'll see your message. The same thing goes for your MP3 player, especially if it can display photos or album art.

Last year, I found someone's 30GB iPod on an airplane. Ultimately, it was the combination of two pictures (one of a girl wearing a town soccer uniform and the other of a dog) that helped me locate the iPod's owner. But imagine if one of the pictures in his iPod had a simple message about how to return it if it was found? Then, with MP3 players, there's two more things you can do. Add your own audio file to the device as though it were a song. Give it a title like "Reward if this iPod is found" and make sure the audio file has an explanation of what to do. Take it one step further by adding informative album art to the audio file. After all, album art is just an image, right? Here's how to do it with Windows Media Player. Here's how to do it with iTunes.

Finally, the Gods must be smiling on me. This is the second time in my life I've left something valuable in a cab and got it back thanks to luck. The first was my wallet in a New York City cab. A bartender was the next person to get in the cab. She tracked me down. Needless to say, I went to her bar, had a beer, and left a really good tip ($100). Since then, I've religiously scanned the cabs I take before letting them drive off to make sure I've left nothing behind. But this time, while unloading all of our gear, I forgot. So, here are a few other ideas. Leave the cab door open until you're absolutely sure that you've got everything you want out of the cab. A cab driver will not drive off with an open door. Always check the seat and the floor of the cab before closing the door.

For double points, scratch down the cabbie's medallion number on your cab receipt as well as the name and phone number of the cab company before closing the door. Some cab receipts (for example, the ones that come out of the receipt printers in New York City cabs) come with some of this information preprinted on them. Double check it before closing that door.

Good luck if you ever lose your technology. I know what that sinking feeling feels like.