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It’s common sense to be cautious about leaving property in the care of strangers, whether you’re handing your car keys to a valet who promises not to go on any Ferris-Bueller-style joyrides, or giving your smartphone to a bystander who offers to snap a photo of your family. It’s unreasonable to live in a constant state of paranoia, but you should certainly take reasonable steps to keep honest people honest — and to provide a significant deterrent to those who might not be honest.
Those of us who travel frequently for work or personal reasons often need to transport valuable items. If you’re driving to your destination, it’s relatively easy to keep your property locked up and out of public view. But there are many cases where flying is the only feasible option, and that opens a whole new array of security concerns.
You might assume that the high-security atmosphere of airports would deter thieves, but that’s not necessarily true. It wouldn’t be difficult for a stranger to snag your suitcase off a busy baggage carousel and walk away — this might be the result of a genuine case of mistaken identity, or the actions of a brazen criminal. Either way, if you’re not around to stop it, your bag could easily roll right out the airport door. Here’s one recent example of this type of crime at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.
However, an even more serious concern is theft by those who are supposed to be looking after your bag. Baggage handlers, airport security, and TSA agents may have access to your luggage behind closed doors. While most of these individuals are just trying to make an honest living, there have been numerous documented instances of airport personnel stealing from passengers’ bags. Incidents occurred in 2014 at Los Angeles International Airport, in 2015 at Miami International Airport, and in 2017 at Orlando International Airport. The ABC News video below shows evidence of several other instances of property theft at the airport.
In some countries, corrupt law enforcement personnel can also be a potential threat. The “tanim bala” scam in the Philippines involved local officers opening travelers’ luggage, planting bullets inside, and then threatening the luggage owners with criminal charges unless they paid bribes. Other corrupt officials may go for the easier reward, and take any valuables they find.
So, if you’re flying with valuables, it’s essential to take steps to prevent sticky-fingered individuals from stealing these items. Instead of assuming you’ll be lucky enough to never experience property theft at an airport, consider the following tips before your next flight.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as legal advice. Your local laws may vary, so review all relevant airport, airline, and TSA guidelines before you fly. Don’t do anything stupid and/or illegal with this information — we aren’t responsible if you do.
The best option is clear: never let your property out of sight. At an airport, that means keeping all valuables in your carry-on luggage, and keeping that luggage with you at all times. In this case, if you check a bag, it should only contain items that would be unlikely to attract thieves — inexpensive toiletries, replaceable clothing, paperwork that doesn’t contain sensitive personal information, and so on.
However, this is not always possible. Your valuables may be too large or heavy, or they may be considered TSA restricted items (alcohol, knives, medical equipment, etc.). So, if you must fly with valuables, and those valuables must be checked, proceed to the following tips.
For obvious reasons, airport security is motivated to carefully monitor and track all luggage that contains declared firearms. Therefore, this category of luggage should be much less likely to be lost or tampered with. Also, special rules are applied to this luggage: it must be locked in a hard-sided container, and “only the passenger retains the key or combination” unless TSA personnel request it.
This means you’re almost guaranteed to be aware of any time your luggage is opened or inspected, because you’ll be explicitly asked to open it. In most cases, you’ll also be present for these inspections, though there have been some reports of TSA agents allegedly violating this rule by conducting the inspection behind closed doors after the case has been opened by its owner. Still, it makes theft of your luggage contents much more difficult.
These rules apply to the strict legal definition of a gun, including starter’s pistols, air rifles, and stripped lower receivers. If you have a hard-sided locking case and one of these items, you can declare it as a firearm, and have it treated as such.
The downside to this tip is that it may be more of a hassle than checking bags normally, so you’ll need to plan ahead and get to the airport early. Flying to destinations where firearms are restricted can also pose legal issues, so be cautious and check local laws before your trip. And keep in mind this is not a foolproof technique — a baggage handler at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport reportedly stole seven firearms from passengers’ luggage before being apprehended. (The exact tools he used to remove these guns from their cases were not reported.)
For more tips on flying with firearms, check out this article from RECOILweb.com.
Many frequent-flyers use TSA-approved locks on their luggage, based on the logic that a locked bag will look more difficult to access, thus deterring opportunistic criminals. While it’s true that locks may be an effective deterrent in some cases, these TSA locks are notoriously easy to defeat.
In fact, schematics for a complete set of working TSA master keys is available for free on the internet. Anyone with access to a 3D printer can easily produce a set of keys that will open any TSA lock immediately. Here’s some proof (we blurred the key patterns to discourage illegal use).
Beyond this gaping security flaw, TSA-approved locks certainly won’t prevent theft by TSA employees, who are authorized to use the keys to search your luggage. In reality, these locks are barely more effective than cinching your zipper pulls together with a plastic zip-tie.
Most importantly, it won’t matter which lock you put on your suitcase if you don’t consider our next point.
Remember the proverb, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We often put too much faith in locks, when the hardware that surrounds those locks may well be the proverbial weakest link.
The following video from lockpicking expert BosnianBill shows that locks on zippered suitcases are easy to bypass, but not in the way you might expect. In this case, the best padlocks on the market will be just as easy to defeat as a cheap TSA-approved combo lock.
As you can see, it’s easy for a dishonest baggage handler to pop open the zipper, rifle through your belongings, and return the zipper to its original position. It’s not even necessary to touch the lock.
BosnianBill’s recommended alternative is a hard-sided clamshell case with dual hasps, such as a Pelican case. This is the same type you might use to carry a firearm, so it’s doubly useful for that purpose.
Assuming the locks are not easily-defeated and the case isn’t flexible enough to be pried open, the lack of zippers ensures the only ways to gain entry involve a saw or bolt cutters. Therefore it’s much less likely that a baggage handler or other non-TSA individual will be able to stealthily break into your luggage.
Remember that it is legal to lock your checked suitcases with non-TSA locks, even if they don’t contain a firearm as mentioned above. However, if TSA needs to open your bag during screening and you’re not present with the key, they will cut the lock. The TSA’s site states, “if you decide to lock your checked baggage and TSA cannot open it through other means, then the locks may have to be cut… TSA is careful to not damage any personal belongings, however, we are not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes.”
So, you should be prepared to replace the locks on your luggage if this occurs. While this may become costly if your luggage is frequently searched, it still ensures only personnel with bolt cutters or large power tools will be able to access your valuables — and that decreases the likelihood of opportunistic criminals tampering with your suitcase elsewhere along the line.
Those who adhere to the gray man philosophy may like the idea of generic-looking luggage, but this is one area where a distinctive appearance can work to your advantage. Whether it’s an unusual paint scheme, brightly-colored accents, or markings on the exterior, unique-looking luggage provides several benefits:
On the other hand, security through obscurity can be useful at times. If your bag is tattered, faded, and frayed at the seams, criminals may think it’s worthless and might overlook it. However, weight and other factors may sufficiently hint at its true contents. These are all factors you should consider.
All security measures are in a constant arms race with their opposing countermeasures. If you’re traveling around with the Hope Diamond, you’d better have it handcuffed to your wrist in a bombproof case with GPS tracking and an armed escort. For the rest of us, it’s logical to take security precautions according to the value of our gear and the risks of the airports we’ll be traveling through.
Through various combinations of the methods above, you can reduce the risk of theft at the airport, and fly comfortably knowing your possessions are more likely to arrive in one piece.