This is primarily a collection of news stories I’ve been accumulating on theft and related problems in the air travel industry, the inadequacy and complicity of the TSA, and what this tells us about the real state of airline and airport security. The main data stash is behind the fold, so if you want to start there, click on the link at the bottom of this entry.
Some themes to watch for as you read:
Thefts by TSA employees during security inspections. Other harassment.
Rate of theft by airline baggage handlers exacerbated by TSA ban on decent luggage locks; also, collusion between TSA scanners and baggage handlers; also, increased difficulty in tracking theft when more than one entity has control of checked luggage.
Theft in consequence of non-negotiable last-minute gateside check for carry-ons. (Idea: take real locks with you to put on your carry-on luggage after you go through security.)
TSA’s perpetual insistance that they have “zero tolerance for theft” when they’re doing squat to combat it. TSA’s perpetual attempts to downplay problems, minimize statistics, and deny that these are anything but isolated incidents: “There is no problem, and the problem is getting better.” TSA’s truthlessness in general.
Huge budgets and hierarchies in support of an airport security system that never catches terrorists. The tendency over time to shift priorities and procedures in ways that serve the needs of airlines and airports, rather than addressing security issues.
Crooked employees misroute luggage to obfuscate theft. Airlines combine theft and lost luggage data to obfuscate the extent of the problem. I recommend cultivating the habit of automatically doubting anyone who talks about what a tiny percentage of suitcases or travelers get robbed.
Thefts from luggage, bribe-taking, and drug trafficking as indications of bad security. Systems set up to facilitate one criminal activity can be used to facilitate others.
Thefts from baggage carousels. Personnel who used to check baggage claim checks were pulled off and reassigned elsewhere to save money. Results: predictable.
Deluxe luggage attracts thieves. Anonymous black proletarian luggage also attracts thieves. No luggage is proof against thieves if a baggage scanner has spotted something that he or she wants.
Recovery strategies that occasionally work: involving local law enforcement agencies; watching eBay and Craigslist; setting up tracking systems on eligible devices.
No airline will reimburse you for lost electronics. All airlines will try to get out of reimbursing you for anything. Options: buy insurance. Ship your luggage via FedEx.
We should all stop telling the victims that it’s their fault they were ripped off — they should have known not to put their valuables in their checked luggage. No one deserves to be robbed.
Not everyone is a savvy traveler. For those that aren’t, the semiotics of air travel don’t say “danger”. When they check their baggage, they’re dealing with someone in a natty airline uniform. They have to show ID. There’s paperwork and receipts. Immediately after that, they have to go through a security check conducted by federal employees. They take all those things as signals that they and their checked luggage are safe.
The air travel industry couldn’t function if some customers weren’t willing to check their luggage. TSA security checks wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t run smoothly, if travelers demanded that their belongings remain in line of sight at all times.
Those who depend on a system’s working in a certain way, and who perpetuate it, have no right to criticize the victims who get caught in it.
Actual law enforcement got involved. State trooper had them replay security video footage. Thief identified; wallet returned. Yay.TSA under pressure to stop baggage theft. Washington Post, 29 July 2003.
More than 60 TSA screeners have been arrested for theft at 30 different airports, both large and small. Some have been caught going through bags in full view of airport security cameras — one is even seen on tape pocketing a gold bracelet.Fox News: Is Baggage Theft at Airports Growing? 19 May 2005. Cum grano salis.
The TSA has settled 15,000 passenger claims filed over theft by screeners and has paid out $1.5 million in damages. …
But executives in the airline industry and local police officials say the problem is not small at all. ABC News has learned that at New York’s three major airports — John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia — 400 of the first 2,000 screeners hired had criminal records. In some cases, it seemed that the TSA hired screeners without first completing background checks. In others, screeners were apparently subjected to basic background checks, without detailed follow-up investigations.
David Stempler, President, Air Travelers Association:San Diego: theft and misconduct by TSA employees. 07 February 2007.
The problem is really at the TSA side, the Transportation Security Administration (search), who basically refused to deal with this problem right from the beginning. We warned them when you start opening bags out of the view of passengers, you’re going to be subjected to all kinds of claims and all kinds of problems, and you’d better be ready for that.
They promised that there would be video cameras watching these people, but they’ve never done it. …
Bill O’Reilly: Now, I’m telling everybody, don’t check anything valuable. Because the airline is not going to help you. They’re basically going to say you’re on your own. Look at the contract. We don’t have to help you. That’s correct, right?
Stempler: Well, no. They have a requirement under the Department of Transportation (search) to pay up to $2,800 per passenger. Internationally, it’s now about $1,500.
O’Reilly: Not Jet Blue. They have in their contract that if you put in a camera or a computer, they do not have to reimburse.
Stempler: Right. You never put anything that’s valuable, that you can’t do without, that if you lost it would be a significant loss.
O’Reilly: And I understand the only way you get reimbursed on the other side is if the airline actually loses your luggage, not if you say something was stolen.
Stempler: Right. The other big problem here is that the care, custody and control is turned over by the passenger over to the airline. The airline puts it on that conveyor belt behind the ticket counter, it goes down to the room. They then have to turn it over to the TSA…
Stempler: … who checks for explosives. Then it goes back to the airline. So if there’s something lost, you get all this finger pointing. The airline points at the TSA.
O’Reilly: Oh, yes.
Stempler: The TSA…
O’Reilly: That’s what Jet Blue did. They said, “It wasn’t our guys.”
O’Reilly: “Because we have cameras on our guys and we can see what they do. It was the feds, because they don’t have any cameras. And they’re stealing stuff, and we hear it all the time. And we can’t do anything about it.”
And you’re right, now they can say, “It’s them. No, it’s not us. It must be them.” …
Stempler: But really, the real problem here, if you’re looking at this luggage thing, it’s with the TSA. They’re very slow on taking claims. They’ve only settled about, we understand, about 26 percent of the claims that are compiled…
O’Reilly: Forget it! If you’re going to go after the feds. And how can you prove it? You can’t prove they stole it.
Stempler: And guess what we’re finding out, Bill? They’ve only settled claims at about $200 per claim. The average at the airlines, we know, is between $400 and $500.
Pythias Brown: The One-Man Crime Wave
Boing Boing: Long comment by me on the Pythias Brown story. Assorted links to evidence of the TSA’s bad security habits, plus informative sites.
If the TSA were adequately monitoring theft and smuggling among TSA employees, Pythias Brown’s thefts should have stuck out like a sore thumb. They’re not owning up to the inadequacy of their procedures. Instead, they’re doing what the TSA always does: lying about it. Here’s a fairly complete version of the story. See if you can spot the TSA’s impossible assertion about Mr. Brown’s one-man crime wave.Boing Boing: me again, with a long comment demonstrating that the TSA was misrepresenting the extent of the problem.
So no one took me up on the challenge? I was looking forward to someone else noticing that, contrary to the TSA’s estimate that Mr. Brown could have stolen upwards of one hundred items from travelers going through Newark, the number of items police seized from Brown’s house adds up to 186; and when you throw in his eBay auctions, it’s 449.Back to the normal everyday luggage thefts:
Of course, we don’t have all the information on his auctions if they happened more than 90 days ago, but you can make a good case for the proposition that most of them were items stolen from travelers. Purchaser reviews stay up forever on eBay. Some of them mention the specific item. Other imply a specific item (viz., it’s scratched, and the flash doesn’t work), or at least indicate the class of objects: it works just fine, but it’s missing its instruction manual.
I scanned through all of the reviews from Pythias Brown’s customers. In very nearly every case where a specific item was mentioned, or where the review indicated the kind of object being sold, it was a piece of consumer electronic gear. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the unspecified items were the same. Also, the mix is the same as in his recent auction listings, and in the gear seized from Brown’s house: a lot of cameras, plus the occasional phone, game system, GPS unit, laptop, CD player, et cetera.
Of course, when you get to the recent auctions, you can see exactly what he was doing…
(Snipped: eBay’s listing of Brown’s auctions in the preceding 90 days.)
The other thing that’s strongly suggested by the reviews is that Brown didn’t start stealing things and selling them on eBay in September 2007. That may be the starting point he admits to, and the one the TSA is citing; but it sure looks like he got started around November 2006, and hit his stride in January of 2007.
As I said in an earlier comment, if the TSA had been making reasonable efforts to follow up on complaints about thefts, Brown would have shown up bright and clear on their radar. … It’s not like he was some kind of criminal mastermind. He was mailing customers their purchases using his own home as the return address, and using his own credit cards rather than cash to pay the postage. The TSA didn’t notice a thing. What cracked this case was
HBOCNN spotting their stolen camera on eBay, then working with the local police in New Jersey.
Earlier this year, a man was arrested at Dallas Fort Worth airport. He admitted taking over 400 bags, and police linked him to at least 600. He also “worked” at airports in Houston and Tulsa, allegedly stealing a number of suitcases every day. And long before that, a Las Vegas man regularly supplied a second-hand clothing store with the stuff from bags stolen off McCarran’s baggage belt.Phoenix: Police discover nearly 1,000 stolen suitcases. 04 November 2009. And: Police sort through belongings of stolen bags; Locked safes, medical equipment, guns, piles of clothes among items. 06 November 2009. And: Luggage theft in Phoenix nets at least a thousand bags. 08 November 2009. And: Luggage thief to serve 3.5-year prison term. 24 August 2010.
After 9/11, airports moved security staff from arrivals to departures. With no bag tag checkers, anyone can saunter out with anything.
Hartford CT: Delta Air Lines baggage handlers were caught rifling through suitcases, pocketing laptops, cameras, iPods, GPS units, jewelry, watches and earrings.AZ: Police say woman stole 30 bags of luggage from Sky Harbor Airport. February 11, 2010.
St. Louis: Authorities broke up a ring of airline thieves in St. Louis who were targeting soldier’s bags that were shipping off to war. Baggage handlers pulled soldiers’ duffels off a conveyor belt in a tunnel. … Among the stolen items recovered: laptops, electronic game systems, cameras, cigarettes, battery chargers, sunglasses and firearms.
Baggage-theft arrests have been made this year in cities around the world, from Dublin, Ireland, to Adelaide, Australia.
AZ: In Phoenix, a couple was found with 1,000 pieces of stolen luggage and belongings piled floor-to-ceiling in their home. The pair had been lifting bags off carousels at the airport.
Portland: Baggage theft reports up nearly 50% this year. Northwest Airlines baggage handlers were caught stealing items and posting them for sale on eBay from a supervisor’s airline-owned computer. Portland airport police have received 195 reports of baggage theft this year through October, compared with 132 reports in the same period of 2008. At least 43 of the reports this year relate to the ring at Northwest.
Airlines say baggage theft is rare among the millions of passengers who fly each year, but law-enforcement officials say it has been growing significantly. “There’s been a tremendous increase in the last five years. It’s pretty bad—a lot is getting stolen every day,” said a prosecutor in the Queens County district attorney’s office, which handles airport theft cases in New York.
Cost-cutting at airlines and police departments has reduced patrols and enforcement, officials say.
JFK: Two Kennedy Airport baggage handlers working for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines were charged with stealing a bag of jewelry worth $280,000. One of the men was a crew chief.
Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration … often are slow to respond to reports and in most cases deny any responsibility. Airline ticket rules—the “contract of carriage”—exclude liability for any valuables in luggage, such as computers, cameras, electronic equipment, jewelry, business documents, artwork or similar valuable items.
Amanda Slaver flew from Rochester, N.Y., to Las Vegas in February and found that her jewelry bag had been unzipped. The good stuff—gold, diamond and sapphire family heirlooms—had been taken and the plastic, glass and metal jewelry remained. For the next seven months she argued with Delta over a $3,000 claim. The airline said it wasn’t liable because its contract of carriage excludes valuables from the airline’s responsibility. Delta offered her a $100 voucher toward a future ticket. A Delta spokeswoman says the airline does offer compensation to customers “within the limits of our contract of carriage.”
Both airline workers and TSA screeners have access to checked luggage, and it’s often impossible to tell who is responsible unless a thief is caught red-handed. Airlines say they try to avoid finger-pointing with TSA over blame. Law-enforcement officials say TSA thefts, though they got lots of attention in past years, account for a relatively small portion of all baggage theft and have been declining.
In 2005, TSA paid out more than $3 million in claims for theft and baggage damage, but by 2008, that dropped to $813,000. Through October this year, TSA has paid out only $446,000 in baggage claims, a spokeswoman said.
TSA has reduced baggage theft as it has moved from opening bags and searching by hand to running them through scanning machines on conveyor belts, limiting the number of bags handled by screeners. The agency says it has also added more surveillance cameras to baggage-screening areas.
A total of 330 TSA officers have been fired for theft since the agency’s inception, a spokeswoman said.
[Other calculations put it higher. They might be wrong, but the TSA is habitually untruthful.]
Complaints filed with TSA about property losses—which include theft—have also dropped, down 26% this year through October compared with the same period of 2008.
Airlines say they look for patterns in theft claims filed by customers and work with police to catch thieves. Arrests in Portland, Hartford, St. Louis and New York all included Delta employees or contractors, for example, and Delta says that’s because it initiated most of the investigations. In New York, for example, Delta and TSA planted a bag stuffed with electronics in the JFK baggage system and two men working together, one a TSA screener and the other a baggage handler, were videotaped swiping a computer and cellphone, then switching the luggage tags to help cover their tracks.
Since it’s hard to pin down at which airport items were stolen, airport police chiefs have launched a new reporting system that tracks the itinerary of a stolen bag, alerts airports along the route and tries to spot patterns, says Chief Mason in St. Louis, who is also president of Airports Law Enforcement Agencies Network, an association of police chiefs. In its first six months, the system has already identified one airport that might be having a problem, he said.
Airlines don’t report statistics on baggage theft, and often never know if a bag was simply lost or if it was stolen. Carriers say they do have surveillance cameras in some locations, and they do conduct spot checks at baggage carousels to match tags on bags with claim checks. Theft of an entire bag, while rare, they say, is most often traced back to someone stealing from a baggage-claim carousel, as with the Phoenix couple.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has begun new random luggage checks and increased video camera surveillance and patrols in baggage-claim areas. Other airports say they patrol baggage areas, watch baggage handlers and sometimes send officers in civilian clothes to monitor activity in claim areas. But baggage theft hasn’t been a high priority amid all the other airport security concerns.
It’s the lack of responsibility for theft that leaves many customers fuming.
Zotter was suspected of stealing luggage during the past seven months but after police interviews, she told authorities she had been taking luggage for the past two years, according to the document.AZ: More Airport Luggage Theft (Sabrina Zotter). February 19, 2010.
Zotter was recorded on airport security cameras with another woman taking luggage from Terminal 4 since August, police said. This was during the same time a Waddell couple was accused of stealing around 1,000 pieces of luggage over the span of two years.
Keith King, 61, and Stacy Legg King, 38, were arrested in November after being recorded stealing luggage from the airport. They were indicted on 45 criminal counts including theft, burglary and trafficking stolen property.
Police do not believe Zotter and the King’s couple worked together. But while investigating the King case, police said they saw evidence that Zotter and another woman were apparently doing the same thing. Surveillance cameras throughout the airport showed two women carrying the luggage to a rental pick-up truck driven by another woman, Detective James Holmes said.
Newark busts, and a good survey of other cases.CBS LA: LAX ranks high in claims of stolen or missing luggage. 19 May 2011.
Over the past six months, Santiago-Serrano told authorities he stole $50,000 worth of computers, GPS devices and other electronics from luggage he screened, took pictures of them to post for sale online and sold the items often by the time his shift ended.Portland, St. Louis, JFK: Magnolia’s Travel News: Theft from travelers and their Luggage. 21 July 2011.
For the past decade, airline reports of “mishandled” luggage have hovered at around five complaints for every 1,000 domestic passengers, a figure that buries actual theft reports in a category that also includes loss, damage, and delay. Nevertheless, a series of recent high-profile arrests demonstrates that, no matter the number of reports, the boldness of thieves has increased, leaving both law enforcement and passengers on high alert.JFK: TSA employee Alexandra Schmid arrested for stealing $5,000 from passenger’s coat pocket during security check. 2-2-2012. And: TSA agent’s theft the latest in a string of blunders.
Last February two TSA agents at JFK International airport were arrested on charges of stealing nearly $160,000 in cash from passenger luggage. In 2009 eight baggage handlers contracted by Delta at St. Louis’s Lambert airport were arrested for going through hundreds of bags and taking more than 900 items over the course of a year. Also that year, a Continental employee from Houston told ABC News that she regularly sees her co-workers searching luggage for valuables.
And it’s not just checked baggage that’s at risk. Scott Mayerowitz, airlines reporter for the Associated Press, says, “I won’t step through the metal detector until I see my bag enter the X-ray machine.” It’s good advice—sticky-fingered TSA agents are rare, but they have been known to pocket items from carry-ons and purses in the screening area.
TSA trainer suspended with pay after pleading guilty to taking $200 to take employee’s annual certification exam. 28 February 2012. And: Seven TSA employees fired in wake of testing scandal (three others had already resigned). 15 June 2012.
Airliners forum, discussing 200/day JFK story. March 2012. How the scam works, according to the dozens of GRU/Sao Paulo baggage handlers recently arrested:
1- Get random bags from international flights and x-ray them, if they saw something cool they’d drop on the national flights belt in instead of the international oneDFW: TSA inspector Clayton Keith Dovel caught with 8 stolen iPads. 14 April 2012.
2- obviously the bag would be there rolling alone on the carousel
3- the airline employee would get the bag and state it was a rush bag
4- the employee used to bring the bag until the airline lost luggage department, steal and then manifest the bag as “lost” or “forgotten”.
I may be on United’s sh*t list (long story):
Not unusual, unfortunately:
The American Airlines carrier contract. Stuff you can’t get reimbursed for, i.e. practically everything.
American does not accept in or as checked baggage any of the following items: antiques, artifacts, artwork, books and documents, china, computers and other electronic equipment, computer software, fragile items (including child/infant restraint devices such as strollers and car seats), eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses, non-prescription sunglasses and all other eyewear and eye/vision devices whether lenses are glass, plastic, or some other material, furs, heirlooms, items carried in the passenger compartment of the aircraft, liquids, medicines, money, orthotics, surgical supports, perishable items, photographic, video and optical equipment, precious metals, stones or jewelry, securities and negotiable papers, silverware, samples, unique or irreplaceable items or any other similar valuable items. American does not accept these items in or as checked baggage and assumes no responsibility or liability for such items, regardless of whether American knew or should have known of the presence of such items in checked or transferred baggage. If any such items are lost, damaged or delayed, you will not be entitled to any reimbursement under American’s standard baggage liability, or under any declared excess valuation. Do not attempt to check these items. Carry them with you in the passenger cabin (subject to carryon baggage limitations).Further reading:
The Airliners.com Civil Aviation Forum: lots of useful material. Perhaps better searched than browsed.
FlyerTalk Forum’s Travel Safety/Security Forum: good moderation and a great deal of resident expertise gives it a good signal-to-noise ratio.
The FlyerTalk Travel Safety/Security Forum Glossary is a useful mixture of official terminology and profound cynicism.
And finally, a.sig line spotted in a FlyerTalk security/TSA thread: Pour discourager les huitres.