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March 2006 Vol. 32, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Photo Gear, Rebreathers Stolen from Divers

And there it is, for sale on eBay

from the March, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Coming back from a three-week vacation in Bonaire last year, Jean- Sebastien Morisset and his wife transited through San Juan P.R. on American Airlines. They traveled with two hard-sided StormCases, holding cameras, housings, and lens ports.

After claiming their bags at San Juan, the Morissets dropped them off at the X-ray machine for their flight to Montreal, hanging around, says Morisset, “to make sure the luggage had crossed into the roped-off area controlled by the TSA.”

Back in Montreal, he opened one case to retrieve their wind breakers, and discovered that someone had rummaged through it. “One lock was missing, there was no TSA letter in the suitcase that might explain the disorder, and six ports had been stolen,” Morisset told Undercurrent. “We filed a report with American Airlines before leaving the airport.”

Days later American could not find their claim, so they faxed another report with receipts to the airline. Then, Morisset ran a search on eBay, figuring he might have to replace his stolen ports. Sure enough, an eBay online auction included a housing, single strobe, three small ports, and two 8-inch Ikelite ports. “Looking closer,” Morisset recalls, “one was my stolen 8-inch port!” He could easily identify it by minor but distinct defects.

Stolen rebreathers show up on eBay.
The tightly knit Inspiration user community
teamed up to uncover a thief
trying to peddle a unit stolen from a
UPS truck in Southern California.

Checking eBay’s member feedback, Morisset found the seller’s first name and determined that he was in Puerto Rico. “I compiled a list of items this member had sold in the last several months,” Morisset reports. They included mainly underwater photography and video equipment. The seller had been an eBay member since 2001 and had a positive rating of 99.1% with 427 feedback comments. One specifically mentioned serial numbers having been removed from a high-end lens he bought.

Morisset contacted eBay, but only received a form letter telling him to report the matter to local authorities. In fact, eBay’s terms and conditions clearly state: “You will not hold eBay responsible for other users’ actions or inactions, including things they post. You acknowledge that we are not ... involved in the actual transaction ... We have no control over and do not guarantee the quality, safety or legality of items advertised, the truth or accuracy of listings ...”

In a liability release that any liveaboard operator would envy, eBay declares that in event of a dispute “you release (anyone connected with eBay) from claims, demands and damages of every kind and nature, known and unknown ...”

eBay advises: “If members see an item on eBay that they believe is stolen ... contact law enforcement immediately ... eBay will be pleased to cooperate in the investigation.”

With eBay featuring millions of items at any given moment, corporate spokesman Hani Durzy told the Portland Oregonian that the company has no way to verify the legitimacy of each listing. It’s not eBay’s job to play price cop and question bargains, Durzy said. However, the Oregonian pointed out, “a dozen states have considered regulating eBay sellers, hoping to get a better handle on goods flowing onto eBay.”

Durzy told the Washington Post that the company estimates only 0.01 percent of its transactions are fraudulent. “It would be impossible for us to be able to pinpoint a stolen good before it gets reported to us,” Durzy said. “We don’t own it. We don’t ship it. We never handle it.” But with 30 million auctions a day, even 0.01 percent means at least 3,000 could involve some sort of crime.

Morisset, left to his own devices, contacted the Department of Homeland Security in San Juan. He also posted a notice of the theft on a Wetpixel forum. Readers of the thread contacted Homeland Security to contribute additional information on similar thefts, virtually all while flying American Airlines through San Juan, according to Morisset.

When Homeland Security investigator Joseph Flores heard about the Wetpixel thread, he requested that it be temporarily disabled to avoid compromising his investigation. When Undercurrent checked with Flores, he said the investigation was still under way, and couldn’t comment on it. In January Morisset received a check from AA for $1447. “It took a while,” he said, “but they finally came through! It doesn’t cover the complete cost of the stolen ports, but it certainly helps!”

In January, the Department of Justice announced an indictment in Dallas charging a couple with burglarizing sporting goods and camera stores and then selling the stolen products on eBay. Among the loot was approximately $45,000 in scuba equipment stolen from Scuba International in Carrollton, Texas.

Many stolen rebreathers show up on eBay. In 2003, the tightly knit Inspiration user community teamed up to uncover a crook trying to peddle a unit stolen from a UPS truck in Southern California. Los Angeles police officer Steve Cooper, posing as a buyer, got the naïve seller to provide the serial numbers, which matched the records from Silent Diving Systems (the Inspiration’s North American distributor). Cooper arranged to meet the seller in a mall parking lot to pick up the hot rebreather. After stalling for 20 minutes for his backup to arrive, officer Cooper took the suspect into custody and booked him for receiving stolen property, a felony.

In an e-mail to fellow rebreather users describing the incident, officer Cooper said, “I feel very proud to be part of the rebreather community as well as a police officer. I have never met more honest and genuine people.”

PS: When passing through the Puerto Rico airport, consider carrying on your most valuable gear.

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