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Airport Luggage Theft - How to protect against being a victim

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Many travellers are blissfully unaware of the dangers that our luggage encounters once we hand it over to the airline. The dangers that airports present to our luggage can take many forms but this article focuses primarily on theft of and from your luggage. Airport luggage theft is a very real problem and your luggage can actually be stolen but it is much more common to have items removed from your luggage.

This problem is happening around the world and it is especially rampant in the United States.

Although you cannot protect yourself from all of the threats to your luggage, with a few precautions, you can limit the likelihood of becoming a victim of luggage theft.

What are the threats to my luggage?

If you have not been to our main page yet, you may want to take a look at it. On this page we reveal the main threats to your luggage when it is not in your control.

For the purposes of this article, the threat that we would like to highlight is theft. That means both your luggage being stolen and items being removed from your luggage.

Many types of luggage are very easy to open and this gives thieves a free reign to search through your bags and help themselves to your possessions. Unfortunately, theft is a very common occurrence at airports around the world.

Where is my luggage most at risk?

Once you check your luggage in, there are many points in its journey where it can be opened and riffled through. There are also places where a thief can simply walk away with your bag.

The three most common places where your luggage is most at risk are: in the airports "back of house", inside the belly of the airplane and at the luggage carousel.

Back of House
The back of house is anywhere between the baggage drop-off point and the baggage make up area where the luggage is loaded into containers or onto tub carts. This area is usually under closed circuit surveillance but these cameras are rarely being watched. The back of house area is a warren of luggage belts and machinery so finding a place to open a bag is very easy.

 

Airport back of house

 

Belly of the airplane
Once your bag is inside the belly of the airplane, the loader (person loading your bag into the airplane) has unsupervised access to any bag on the flight. Your luggage is more at risk if the bags are loose and not in a preloaded container. On aircraft that do not use containers, there is usually only one loader and they can take their time to peek inside bags that can be opened quickly.

 

Belly of the airplane

 

The luggage carousel
The luggage carousel is where you wait to have your bags are returned to you. It is usually a crowded and confusing area. Thieves can take advantage of these distractions and simply pick up the first bag that they see and walk out the door.

 

Luggage claim carousel

 

Who are these luggage thieves?

The back of house area of an airport is a very secure area for obvious reasons. As incredible as it seems, that means that these luggage thieves would have to be employees of the airport. Often they work in teams for greater effectiveness.

Going just by who has been caught and arrested for luggage theft, it is usually either a person handling luggage (baggage handler) or a member of the TSA security screening team that gets caught for stealing from luggage.

In other cases, the thefts are carried out by other passengers stealing from carry-on baggage on-board the airplane or people walking in off the street and then walking out with luggage right off the luggage carousel.

Does the TSA steal from luggage?

Unfortunately, there are always a few bad apples and yes, that includes people working for the TSA. Luggage theft is not limited just to the TSA. This crime goes on everyday all over the world. These crimes tend to be crimes of opportunity like taking things left behind at the pre-board screening checkpoint are.

They know that people are carrying their valuables through pre-board screening to guard against theft in checked luggage.

The best solution is to not ever leave your belongings unattended at pre-board screening checkpoint. Even more important, never leave anything of value behind. Laptops, cellphones, wallets are all very tempting for TSA agents.

How can I prevent thieves stealing from my luggage?

Simple, make your luggage a little harder to steal from than the bags around it.

To beat a thief, you need to think like a thief: What types of luggage do they target, what do they like to steal, when is the best place to strike and where.

What type of luggage are thieves looking for?
Most bad guys do not want to get caught so they are looking for an easy target that will be quick to get into and out of without raising any suspicions. This usually means they look for unlocked and zippered luggage. In these cases, all they have to do is unzip the bag, take a quick look around and pocket anything of value.

What are thieves looking to steal?
They are looking for items that are small, easy to pocket and valuable. Tablets, iPads, cameras, electronic games, jewelry, watches, cash and even food are some of the more common items that go missing every day.

Where and when do they steal?
This is where it gets tricky. Airport thieves know where they can open our luggage without being seen or getting caught by another worker. They usually strike when they have time when they are not required to be anywhere. Since it takes so little time to open a bag and steal from it, not much time is required.

Okay, so how do I protect myself?

Do not check your luggage in.
Okay, this is a controversial idea. Many people want or need to check in their luggage - especially if it is either very large or very heavy. If you can get away with a legal sized carry-on (so you are not forced to gate check it), carrying it on means that the only risk you are taking is another passenger stealing from you in-flight (it does happen).

You just never know when an airline is going to force you to check your carry-on bag so you should always travel prepared for the worst.

If you do check your bag:
In the case where you check your luggage, there are a few things that you can do to make your luggage less appealing to the bad guys:

  • Always lock your bag!
  • Never pack valuables or breakables in your checked bags!
  • Place all valuables in a small bag that you can place under the seat in front of you
  • Use a hard side suitcase (no fabric that can be cut through)
  • Use a hard side suitcase with latches (no zippers)
  • If your bag uses zippers, try to get one with puncture resistant zippers known as YYK (or double coil)
  • If your bag uses traditional zippers, get one where the zippers lock into a holder (this prevent thieves rezipping the case closed making it less attractive)
  • Encasing your bag in shrink wrap makes it far less attractive to thieves
  • Check your bag as close to departure as possible - if you check it in very early, it spends more time sitting in harms way

If you follow these tips, chances are the bad guys will ignore your bag and move on to a bag that is easier to open.

At the luggage carousel (if you check your bag)
Have you ever wondered what is stopping anyone from just picking up your bag from the arriving luggage carousel and walking out with it? Unfortunately, the answer is not much. This is usually limited to domestic terminals because at international terminals, passengers must claim their luggage in order to pass through customs clearance.

Some airport have started to challenge passengers as they leave domestic arrivals. If not, it is quite easy to protect yourself:

  • Try to stand as close to where the luggage is dropped onto the carousel belt
  • Keep an eye out for your bag to make sure that it is not removed by anyone else
  • Challenge anyone taking a bag that looks like yours - they will probably plead ignorance and walk away

If you carry your bag on-board:
Carrying your bag on-board will definitely minimize its exposure to theft and damage but then you need to protect it from other passengers. As brazen as it sounds, there are thieves that are bold enough to stand up during a flight and search through someone else's bag and steal valuables from it.

There are a few simple tricks that you can use to keep your valuables safe inflight:

  • Make sure that your luggage never gets gate checked at the last minute
  • Always lock your carry-on luggage
  • Remove valuables from your carry-on and store it under the seat or in the seat pocket in front of you
  • When you place your bag in the overhead locker, place it upside down - this will make it much more difficult to open.

What if I buy luggage like the airline crew?

Some people think that is they buy the exact same luggage as the flight crew that they will reduce the likelihood of getting robbed. The main thing that makes "crew luggage" so safe is that it literally never leaves their sight. The bad guys never get close enough to get inside so of course they never get robbed in the way that you and I could be.

What about gate check?

Some airline offer something called "gate check". This allows you to bring luggage through the screening checkpoint but load it into the hold of the aircraft as you board. Sometimes you will be forced into this if there is not enough room for all of the carry-on luggage on board or if your luggage is deemed to be too large by the airline staff.

Checking your luggage in at the gate does save you from any bad guys in the back of house but it does not do anything to keep you safe from the guys loading your bags into the belly of the airplane.

Gate check luggage

Theft from carry-on baggage mid-flight is a rising concern

It is hard to believe that someone would have the nerve to stand up in front of an entire plane full of people and steal from another passenger's bag. This crime does happen and the airlines know it but they are powerless stop it. It occurs mainly on long, overnight international flights.

Thieves know that people will be carrying cash and valuables in their carry-on luggage so it is very tempting. They usually strike when everyone is asleep and the crew is not watching. The Canadian government has even taken the step of discussing it on their website.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How do I stop TSA from stealing?

Simple, make your luggage a little harder to steal from than the bags around it. If you check your bag in, make sure that it does not contain any valuables and make sure that it does not contain any items that will flag your bag to be searched. You can read more about how to avoid TSA opening your carry-on and checked luggage here.

Do baggage handlers steal from passenger baggage?

Not all baggage handlers steal do but some do. TSA records show that tens of thousands of items are reported missing (stolen) from passenger baggage each year. This limits who has the opportunity to access your luggage so it is most likely the a baggage handler or security screening staff.

How can I protect my luggage from theft?

Make your luggage less attractive to thieves than other bags. Always lock your luggage. Use a hardsided suitcase that does not use zippers to stay closed.

Conclusion

Yes, our luggage is at risk from thieves, smugglers and damage from the baggage handling system but we feel that you can gain an the upper hand if you travel with hardsided, zipperless baggage. You are not going to be able to stop theft but the best deterrent is to make your bag slightly less appealing than those around it.

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Happy travels!

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