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Larceny In The Air And At The Airport: How Not To Fall Victim

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With fares and fees skyrocketing lately, you're excused for feeling that someone's picking your pocket every time you fly. But every year thousands of airline passengers have items stolen from security check points, overhead bins and bags, both checked and unchecked. Some even have entire bags swiped. And some do indeed get their pockets picked, if not by the airline, then by the guy sitting next to them (or, amazingly, by flight attendants).

Just ask William Zoffinger. Two hours into his flight to Honolulu, the Miami-based financial planner took his wallet out to buy some peanuts (remember when they were free?), slipped it into his new wife's oversized purse under the seat in front of her and fell asleep. It wasn't until the cab ride after the plane landed that they realized the wallet was gone -- along with his credit cards, driver's license and more than $600 in cash.

"That really helped make it the honeymoon from hell," the 25-year-old said ruefully.

They're all at it
Flying these days isn't just hectic and discombobulating but also is rife with felonious fellow passengers, bandito baggage handlers and shady security screeners.

The TSA certainly isn't immune, either. Although all TSA agents are supposedly background-checked, more than 400 have been fired over the past five years for stealing, including two who helped themselves to thousands in cash from checked bags (what that much in cash was doing in checked luggage is another story). For the record, the TSA says the worst airports for theft are Newark, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Seattle-Tacoma.

Steps to help prevent your items being stolen
Jewelry is the single biggest category of stolen valuables, followed by cameras and electronics. Still, carelessness and blind faith make the situation needlessly worse. So keep the following in mind:

  • Don't stash anything in your checked bags that you'd be devastated to lose, and buy one small but solid lock per bag (the TSA suggests Travel Sentry or Safe Skies brands, both of which screeners can open and relock should they decide to go into your bag). Locks occasionally do get cut off by screeners if a bag seems suspicious, but they seem to discourage casual pilfering. Airlines will not cover you for anything lost or damaged in your checked luggage that might be considered "valuable" -- that includes cash, electronics, jewelry and important business papers or antiques.
  • In security lines, consolidate loose items (such as phones or iPods) into one bag before putting it through the machine, and keep an eagle eye when it emerges out the other end -- even if you're detained for wanding or frisking. If the security screeners bring you out of sight of your stuff, politely but firmly ask to have it brought to you immediately.
  • Don't pass through the metal detector until your items are well inside the x-ray machine. And don't put your valuables on the conveyor belt unless you're about to go through the body scanner and make sure you're "clean" -- no coins in your pocket, belt off, so that you won't be detained and distracted if they make you go through the scanner again.
  • In-flight, put the carry-on with all your "must-not-lose" belongings under the seat in front of you and lock it, because the passenger seated ahead of you can reach under his seat and delve into your bag. But keep wallets on your person, especially if it's a long-haul flight. That goes for double if it's overnight and you plan to sleep. Consider locks for any bags in overhead bins, as well; it's not unheard of for a thief to run his or her mitts through bags while their owners are snoozing. It's also not a bad idea to put your bag(s) in the bin across from you, the better to keep an eye on things. If you're sitting in business or first class and the flight attendant offers to hang your coat or jacket, make sure that there's nothing valuable in the pockets. Even flight attendants have been known to steal valuables from coats and jackets.
  • Don't pack valuables near the tops of your carry-on bags; that makes it easier for someone casually to scoop them out, with minimal effort.
  • If you're traveling within the US and you absolutely must have use of valuable items when you arrive at your destination, and they will not fit in your carry on bags, then ship them five days ahead using FedEx ground (which is much more economical than next day service). You can insure these items with FedEx, but you cannot insure them if they're in checked bags. Read more about this.

Getting your items, or money, back
If something disappears at an airport, first try the lost and found office. If your stuff is well and truly gone, in certain cases you've got a prayer of recovery thanks to modern technology. For laptops (very popular items to nick), products like LoJack for Laptops from Computrace send out a signal when a stolen computer logs onto the Internet -- and call the cops.

Laptop Cop from Awareness Technology does the same -- and even lets you log on remotely to copy and delete sensitive files. Zoombak's Advanced GPS Universal Locator lets you track a waylaid bag via Internet or phone. If all else fails, try checking for a particularly distinctive stolen item on eBay or your local Craigslist site.

Depending on where you think your stuff was taken, you can try filing a claim with the airline. Good luck with that -- most airlines will reimburse you if they lose your checked luggage (up to $3,300 on US domestic flights, but far less if your trip involves an international itinerary, which is why declaring excess valuation is a good idea), but most valuables such as cash, business materials, electronics and jewelry are excluded, as is all cabin luggage. Also, you'll need to show receipts and take a deduction for depreciation, so you won't get full replacement value.

The TSA isn't much better: If you file a claim (here, on the TSA's Web site), expect a long, drawn-out process that is likely to end in minimal compensation or a denial.

So what about insurance? Your home owner's or renter's policy might cover you. If not, consider travel insurance (often a good idea anyway), available from more than a dozen companies; you can compare and get quotes at the excellent site Some credit cards also provide protection. In order to help establish the loss, be sure to file all the claims you can, along with a police report. But do yourself a favor: As with many of life's problems, when it comes to security, prevention is always best.

Add your advice
Have you been the victim of airport or airline theft? Any tips on preventing larcency in the air? Please share your advice.