How to protect your luggage from being pilfered

by Christopher Elliott on August 30, 2011

Philip Bramson’s iPod vanished from his checked luggage on a recent flight to Mexico, and recovering it seemed impossible.

“It was hidden in my luggage, so it could only have been seen through the X-ray or a pretty thorough search,” he says. “The only place this could have happened is during the luggage handling in JFK. There was not enough time in Mexico between when we landed and I was given my luggage.”

It’s an awful feeling when you open your suitcase after a long flight and notice that something’s missing. But it doesn’t have to happen to you.

Last month, after I explored the extent of an airline’s liability when it comes to lost luggage — which, sadly, isn’t much — many readers asked for tips on how to avoid having their checked bags targeted. I’m happy to help.

The best way to keep your valuables away from a thieving TSA agent or airline employee is to not check a bag, of course. It deprives the agent of an opportunity to enrich himself, and the airline of a $25 checked luggage fee, which it shouldn’t be charging in the first place.

But that’s not always possible. People fly with stuff. They can’t — or don’t want to — carry it all on the plane.

Robert Siciliano, a security consultant, said if you must check a bag, try something downscale but solid. Thieves don’t like cheap luggage, because they assume the contents are worthless.

And, “hard-back luggage can’t be cut with a razor,” he says.

Another tactic: the disguise. It works for Renee Fredrickson, a psychologist from Minneapolis, who often checks luggage with valuable contents.

One time, she accidentally left more than $5,000 in her checked bag. It was returned to her with every penny. “It was in a canvas bag with the name and logo of my son’s preschool on it,” she recalls. “Now I use pink or purple luggage when I travel, unless I’m being met at the airport by another professional. Why not exploit cultural misperceptions?”

Pack right, too. Some travelers wrap their bags in duct tape, which makes it practically impossible for anyone (including, alas, the owner) to access its contents quickly. You can hire a professional to do that. A company called Secure Wrap, which operates mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean but also has locations at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport and JFK, will cocoon your checked bag in clear plastic for a small fee.

Ann Lombardi, a travel agent from Atlanta, uses two different-colored metal bread package twisties, with each pair twisted tightly and looped through the zipper holes of her small suitcase. “Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but so far, no one has ever tampered with my luggage during my travels to almost 90 countries over the years,” she says.

What’s inside is just as important as the exterior, says Bill Horne, a consultant in Boston. If someone opens your bag, you want to give that person a reason to close it quickly.

He uses his son’s toy sheriff badge and an ID card from a company he no longer works for.

“The badge has a distinctive design which looks like a real law-enforcement shield on an airport X-ray, thus discouraging collusion between X-ray attendants and baggage handlers,” he told me. “Even if the bag is opened, a sneaky thief doesn’t have time to read the ID card, and the badge creates a visceral impression of big trouble that will motivate a dishonest baggage handler to close the bag back up and move on to the next one.”

How clever.

TSA-approved locks, offered by numerous luggage manufacturers, are another option, but only if you trust the TSA. Remember, TSA agents have a master key that lets them access your valuables instantly.

But the real solution to this problem isn’t subterfuge or packing an airtight suitcase. It is instead stopping baggage handlers and security officials, both here and abroad, who like to help themselves to your personal belongings.

That could take some effort. Although the TSA insists it has a “zero tolerance” policy on theft (um, show me an organization that publicly admits to tolerating theft) and goes to great lengths to point out how infrequently its agents are caught stealing, the agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems has been in the news with some regularity because of dishonest employees.

Just this summer, TSA agents made headlines for stealing cash from bags in Newark, swiping laptops from luggage in Orlando and taking $22,000 worth of watches from suitcases in Los Angeles.

But the TSA isn’t the real culprit as I see it. After all, you entrusted the airline, not the government, with your bag.

I suspect the only way anything will ever get fixed is if we make airlines pay for every single one of those misplaced bags. And I’m not talking about some wishy-washy international treaty that lets them off the hook for everything but lost luggage. I mean rules with real teeth that say to the airlines: If you force us to pay $25 to check a bag, and something happens to it when it’s in your care, you are responsible.

By the way, Bramson’s story had a happy ending. I advised him to fill out a claim form immediately with his airline. He did, and after several e-mail exchanges and sending a receipt for the pilfered gadget, his iPod was replaced.

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  • Clifford P Woodrick

    I use bright orange electrical ties to seal my luggage. They must be cut off to open my luggage. Inside my luggage I have a letter requesting that the TSA reseal my luggage with blue electrical ties therefore I know if my luggage has been inspected. The TSA is required (I was told this) to enclose a letter stating that the bag was inspected and by the inspector’s TSA number. Once I received a nice comment in my bag.

    Have a wonderful day

  • Mapsmith

    Number One rule of Checking bags.  Don’t put anything of value other than clothes.  iPods, iPads, Notebooks, MP3 players, Cameras, Jewelry, etc, goes in your carryon.  Period!

  • Marilyn

    My luggage is opened and inspected nearly every trip because I get the TSA letter enclosed in the bag.  I have given up on using any sort of lock or secure closure other than what is put on the bag by the manufacturer.  I have never missed anything from my bags, but I don’t put anything in except clothes and other personal items which wouldn’t be worth much to anyone but me.  Cameras, cell phones, prescription drugs, money, etc. are in my carry-on or purse.  Most people are honest, but we just have to use common sense and precautions to protect ourselves from the few who aren’t. 

  • lynn

    There is no reason to ever put an ipod, jewelry, cash, watches, or anything else of value in a checked bag. Period.  Anything valuable goes in a carry-on.

  • http://www.habitationofjustice.com/ Lincoln Adams

    My MacBook, iPad, iPhone and camera comes on board with me.  Other than that the only valuables I have in my check-in is my underwear.  Fruit of the Loom baby, you know how fast THOSE can go on the black market.

  • Ton

    Ann Lombardi, a travel agent from Atlanta, uses two different-colored
    metal bread package twisties, with each pair twisted tightly and looped
    through the zipper holes of her small suitcase.

    any zipper, and yes any, can be opened by sticking something in the zipper

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwfYuUPcgHg

    so that is not a secure option

    just keep your stuff on you, i always take time before the tsa to put everything in my carryon, incl the wallet etc. This way nobody sees what i have in my pockets (peoples stuff gets stolen from the overhead bins)

    also for travel i have a dirt cheap tablet, no expensive laptop

  • Ton

    a friend of my worked for an airline, 1 time we went into the bowels of the airport to get some furniture, he showed me the storage room where stuff was kept that was found on the planes/left luggage. You won’t believe what people forget (a phone shure but a bike or a surfboard??) anyway after a while the things are destroyed, sold or give to a charity.

    They (the airport not the airline) even have a sort of lottery type of sale where you buy a suitcase without knowing what’s in it. Could be dirty underware could be full with ipad’s

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