By Travel columnist
updated 4/20/2005 2:01:15 PM ET 2005-04-20T18:01:15

There is little question that unruly passengers continue to be an in-flight danger. But there is another menace that may be on board your flight, too. This one is less dangerous but also less detectable. It’s the cabin thief.

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Theft of belongings from coat closets, from under passenger seats, and from overhead bins is not uncommon. While statistics are hard to come by, I’ve heard enough anecdotes from those in the know to convince me that on-board theft is not an insignificant problem.

For instance, there is the case of a woman who made a living—a good one at that—by stealing credit cards from the purses and wallets of passengers aboard long-haul flights. She chose overnight, transoceanic flights because (1) there is plenty of time to plan and carry out the thefts, (2) there is a time in the flights when many of the passengers are sleeping and lighting in the cabin is dim, and (3) victims are unlikely to discover the thefts until the perpetrator is long gone.

The woman was finally nabbed as she deplaned in Japan after completing a round-trip theft-a-thon where she collected several hundred credit cards from coats, jackets, purses, and bags stored in the overhead compartments of the jumbo jets she was prowling.

Certainly the potential consequences of cabin theft is nowhere near as serious as an out-of-control passenger, but it is a major inconvenience at best to have your credit cards pinched while you’re snoozing at 30,000 feet.

To prevent becoming a victim of cabin theft, follow these few, simple rules when packing your personal effects and when stowing your luggage.

Put the most important items on the bottom.

Reduce the chances that a thief can slide his hand into your luggage and easily find all the goodies he is looking for right on top.

Check your luggage at the counter.

This alternative appeals to fewer people these days, but it absolutely eliminates the possibility of your bags being rifled through during flight. (Having your luggage being pilfered by baggage handlers on the ground is another story.)

Secure your carry-ons.

Strap, buckle, tie, zip and do whatever else you can do to make it difficult to get into your luggage.

Store carry-ons in front of you.

Carry-on luggage stored under your feet is more secure than in overhead bins. Nevertheless, when using an overhead bin for your belongings, use one in front of you on the other side of the aisle so you can see when others are groping your belongings.

Keep in contact with important documents.

Keep really, really important documents such as your passport in a travel wallet that fits under your clothes.

Finally, keep your luggage with you for the duration of your flight.

If you decide to get off the airplane to stretch you legs at an intermediate stop on the way to your destination, take all your carry-on bags with you. If you leave them on the plane, you may find yourself in a circumstance much worse than having a couple of credit cards go missing. You may find that an “importer” has placed contraband in your luggage to help him move his goods, risk-free (to him) through customs. And if the contraband is drugs and you are flying into a death-penalty-for-possession country, you will be more than inconvenienced.

The next time you fly, worry less about being ripped off “by” an airline. Worry instead about being ripped off while “on” an airline.

Terry Riley, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a corporate psychologist specializing in the management of travel behavior. Terry is the author of "Travel Can Be Murder" and "The Complete Travel Diet." He also edits Travel Fox, a satirical news report. E-mail Terry or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Riley's forum.

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