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may 07 2008

FAQs about items stolen from checked bags

More than 90 readers have commented on our recent blog post "Has the TSA stolen from you?" Many have had precious items vanish from checked luggage.

And many of you are demanding answers: How many victims are there? Who's to blame? And what can victims do?

We've posted the TSA's response here.

What about the perspective of the airline's baggage workers? What do they think about thefts from checked luggage?

I recently interviewed Scott T. Mueller, who worked his way up from baggage handler to manager of central baggage systems for Midwest Airlines (though the opinions he expresses are his own and not that airline's). He's the author of The Empty Carousel: A Consumer's Guide to Checked and Carry-on Luggage, and he also has a blog. He knows a lot about how to handle lost, pilfered, and damaged baggage claims.

Do airline workers steal as much—or as little—as TSA inspectors?

The short answer is that, sadly, there are bad apples in both groups—the airline and the TSA. Both groups of workers are subject to background checks, but bad apples do manage to slip through and get hired.

Here's the long answer: There's a large difference though between TSA workers and airline workers. Namely, the circumstances are easier for a TSA worker to act alone when committing a crime. TSA workers have a legal right to open bags, while airline workers do not--so it's less likely that someone walking by will stop and question a TSA worker.

Second of all, airline workers generally don't have much "alone time" with bags. In fact, the working conditions for airline workers make it difficult for any one person to act as a thief on their own. That's why we always hear about organized criminal rings at airports, rather than individual thieves.

Just picture the baggage hold area, as a for instance. That's where bags are stored before they're loaded onto planes. This place is a beehive of activity. You'd need your coworkers to help you out if you were going to steal anything.

Contrast that image with the typical TSA inspection area. It's usually an area out of the eyes of ordinary citizens, with inspectors working without co-workers watching over their shoulder.

Which situation is the better one for a thief? The typical TSA workplace setting for inspections permits more theft than the typical airline workplace.

[Editors note: The TSA disagrees with this point of view. The agency's spokesperson says, "searches are conducted often in public areas by well-supervised security officers who work in teams." The TSA spokesperson also says, "We estimate that for every TSA employee that touches a bag, six to ten airline or airport employees and contractors touch the same bag out of the view of passengers."]

The TSA publishes statistics on loss claims. They say, "Of the roughly 2 billion passengers who have traveled since TSA assumed responsibility for screening in 2003, approximately 67,000 passenger loss claims have been filed to date. That is well under one hundredth of one percent, or a claim rate of 3 per 100,000 passengers." Is that an acceptable rate of loss?

Well, before I answer that question, I'd point out that you can see part of those TSA loss reports for yourself. A Kansas City Fox news station made a TSA report public a couple of months ago, posting the data on its website. The TSA report says that about 14,000 travelers a year report to the TSA that items were lost from their luggage. (See the report here.)

But back to your question: I think that's a high number. Unnecessarily high. That's not a perfect number, either, of course. On the one hand, that statistic only counts people who bothered to fill out reports with the TSA, so it might not give you the full picture. On the other hand, the statistic also counts claims of reported lost items. Travelers who later realize that they misplaced an item instead of lost it probably never go back to the TSA and tell them that the claim is resolved.

If the TSA bears a heavy responsible for thefts, why don't the airlines complain?

The airlines did complain to the TSA in 2002 when the problems first appeared. The TSA took some measures to increase oversight of its workers. But the problems are still continuing. You know, the typical large airline spends at least half a million dollars a year in costs related to baggage that doesn't arrive in tact.

You would think the airlines would care about saving money and providing a good experience to win repeat business from customers. My guess is that, in general, the airline execs are distracted by soaring fuel prices, disputes with unions, and other worries.

Plus, in May 2006, when Congress held hearings about problems with airline baggage systems, the lawmakers concluded that there was no cost effective rule or policy change that could fix the problems. I've spoken with the chairman of the aviation committee. I'd like to convince him that we need to get several messages out to travelers, and one of those messages is that travelers should not pack their valuables in checked luggage. If it really matters to you, don't put it in a checked bag.

[Editors note: The TSA website warns travelers: "NEVER place jewelry, cash, electronics, or fragile items in your checked baggage."]

Do the airlines keep track of how many items are reported stolen and how many items are proven to be stolen?

Yes. I once met with my fellow representatives of other airline baggage systems at the offices of the Air Transport Association (ATA). The major airlines shared numbers of reported lost items, lost bags, and other baggage statistics. We all said that we had seen huge spikes in reported thefts after the TSA began inspecting bags. The ATA took that info to the TSA. Some changes were made by the TSA, but my understanding is that the number of reports of lost and stolen items remains high.

Have the airlines told the media how many passengers report stolen, lost, misplaced or damaged items?

No.

If you believe that something has been stolen from your bag, what should you do?

If there is a slip of paper in your bag saying that the TSA inspected it, then you should file an online claim form through the TSA website. If there's no slip of paper, file directly with the airline instead. You should act quickly, though. Airlines generally require you to file a claim for a "pilfered" item within 48 hours of landing. As a general rule, you can file over the phone.

Why bother filing a police report for an expensive item?

First, if you're filing a claim with the TSA, the form will ask you for an incident report number from a police report. By filing a police report and putting that number on your claim form, you may increase the chances that the agency will take your claim seriously.

Second, it's important to file a police report because it's the best way to help catch crooks. Let's say there's a criminal ring stealing bags. And let's say they get caught one day. You'll improve your chances of getting your goods back if you've filed a report. And you'll make it much easier for the cops to prosecute the case. I personally saw this when a ring of thieves at a Boston airport was discovered. Someone in the suburbs opened up a storage locker and discovered a bunch of luggage and tipped off the police.

If you think you've been robbed of electronics and jewelry, is there anything else you can do?

Yes, you should call the airport's law enforcement office at both your departure airport and your arrival airport, filing reports for stolen goods. You can find the phone numbers by calling each airport's main line and asking the operator to speak to the office that handles airport law enforcement.

Should the TSA require every inspector to put their ID numbers on those slips of paper left in bags? Wouldn't that help the TSA trace who opened any given bag?

You're asking about those paper sheets that say something like, "your bag has been inspected." If I was a thief working for the TSA, I would definitely "forget" to put the slip of paper in a bag I had stolen from. Why draw attention to the fact that the TSA had anything to do with the bag?

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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