Stay alert to larceny in the air

It is important for passengers to keep a close eye on their belongings at TSA airport security checkpoints, because some U.S. airports have been plagued by thefts committed by TSA screeners.
It is important for passengers to keep a close eye on their belongings at TSA airport security checkpoints, because some U.S. airports have been plagued by thefts committed by TSA screeners.AP Photo
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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.

Just ask William Zoffinger. Two hours into his flight to Honolulu earlier this year, 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
It even happens to contributors. Rushing to make a plane at Miami, I sent my PDA-phone through the x-ray machine but in my haste, ran for the gate without retrieving it. I immediately returned to the checkpoint, but my beloved Nokia was gone without a trace.

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

Consider: In 2007, two young ground-services employees were busted for rifling through Alaska Airlines luggage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In 2005, an AirTran baggage handler at Chicago Midway managed to pinch a case of audio equipment right out of the cargo hold. This spring, three Continental baggage handlers were nabbed in Tampa.

The Transportation Security Administration (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. (It seems fair to hope some may have been jailed too, for committing crimes while serving in vitally important positions of public trust.) 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Getting your items, or money, back
If something disappears at an airport, first try the Lost and Found office. If your stuff is 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 $2,500), 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.