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Why isn't there more theft at airport baggage claims?
December 3, 2009 9:31 PM   Subscribe

Why isn't there more theft at airport baggage claims?

At most airports I've been to, the baggage claims are openly accessible from the outside, and no verification/authentication is necessary to walk in the door, grab a suitcase from the conveyor belt, and walk right out. (I know some airports require people to show baggage check receipts, but most I've been to haven't.) What's more, valuable suitcases often sit around for long periods of time without being claimed, leaving thieves plenty of time. How does this baggage-claim system not implode from epidemic theft?
posted by lunchbox to Travel & Transportation (50 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would think that your average petty thief doesn't have the money to fly, and isn't going to pay for parking and then hang around a place with lots of security agents nearby waiting for the chance to grab one bag whose owner might spot them right away. Plus: lots of witnesses, lots of light, and security cameras on. Thieves go for easy things in the dark with no witnesses.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:36 PM on December 3, 2009


Well, of course there are some cases luggage theft, but I think the reason there isn't more is that:

- Airports are heavily surveilled places. If you do it too much, you're bound to get caught.
- It's probably just clothes, isn't it? People tend to take their valuable stuff in carry-on.
posted by Laen at 9:36 PM on December 3, 2009


I guess the luggage itself can be pretty valuable, though..
posted by Laen at 9:37 PM on December 3, 2009


There is also the fact that I am cranky after dealing with security and the flight itself. I will cut you if I see you reaching for my bag.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:38 PM on December 3, 2009 [14 favorites]


I would imagine it's a risk-to-reward issue: most of the stuff in your suitcase is of dubious value to anyone who doesn't want to spend an awkward afternoon at a consignment or secondhand store.

While I assume most bring their laptops in carry-ons, I can see it being like a really unfortunate lottery where you mostly get other people's underwear. You might get some gems, but it's probably just a lot of clothes and toiletries, and when you factor in the possibility of grabbing someone's bag in front of them along with security cameras being pretty ubiquitous, it just doesn't make too much sense.

Phoenix Sky Harbor has begun reinstating random claim checks--you used to have to walk through a kiosk where they'd check your claims for every bag but this stopped probably 10 or more years ago.

Short answer: go give it a shot, but it's far enough from being a sure thing, I would imagine, and do you really want someone else's clothes?
posted by disillusioned at 9:38 PM on December 3, 2009


My guesses:

1. There is a fairamount of theft but...

2. Not epidemic because bags are heavy, there are a ton of security personnel around airports, hundreds of people witness the crime (including the bag owner himself who you have no way to ID until he is tackling you), and you have no guarantee at all of getting anything good- you're most likely going to end up with someone's soiled underwear and socks and maybe a travel shampoo. I know I personally carry everything of value in my carry-on.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:39 PM on December 3, 2009


The simple answer is that there's no way to know that the owner of the bag you're taking isn't standing right next to you. Throw in all the security measures nearby, and any thinking thief is going to prefer shoplifting or purse-snatching.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:50 PM on December 3, 2009


To add to many of the excellent answers above: It's a logistical nightmare to make a quick getaway. If a thief wanted to forgo the effort of finding a parking spot and then hauling their loot back to their car (theft is supposed to be easy work, right?), they would have to coordinate with a driver to pick them up at the curb. No easy task, since cars aren't allowed to sit at the curb these days. Worst case scenario would be the getaway driver would have to circle the airport, which leaves the thief at the curb for who knows how long, increasing their chances of getting pinched.

I will cut you if I see you reaching for my bag.
Seriously...he would run at you with scissors!
posted by puritycontrol at 9:55 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


It does seem as if this would be easy to do, especially when you are the one worried about losing your stuff, and you look around and realize that there is nobody with a gun actually assigned to that area specifically.

But thieves think in more general terms like "There are cops and cameras all over the place, everyone has their guard up, and if I had to run, it would take me forever to get out of here." It's just not worth it.
posted by bingo at 10:03 PM on December 3, 2009


I don't know, it seems like if you limited yourself to lifting nondescript black bags, you could claim that you thought it was yours if confronted. If you've got the social skills, you could pull off, "No, this is mine - wait, let me check the tag. Oh shit, you're right, so sorry. That overnight was a killer!"
posted by shaun uh at 10:06 PM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Probably the biggest reason is that petty criminals, the kind that would randomly steal a suitcase in hopes it contains something they can sell, are poor.

Which means they don't travel by air, so they don't even know how to get to the airport, let alone how to find a baggage terminal, look inconspicuous while standing around the carousel, and escape by public transit with their stolen suitcase of sand-filled swim trunks.
posted by justkevin at 10:09 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There were a few cases of stolen luggage a few years ago in NZ so all the airports installed cameras. So yeah, you can steal my bag. But there'll be a nice video of you doing so to aid in catching you. There are airport staff quietly hanging around too so it must be harder to do this more than once, they'd notice if you kept coming back.
posted by shelleycat at 10:10 PM on December 3, 2009


My Mom the travel agent says that there's been a lot of baggage claim theft recently at LAX. Her peeps are blaming the recession.
posted by dws at 10:15 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you've got the social skills, you could pull off, "No, this is mine - wait, let me check the tag. Oh shit, you're right, so sorry. That overnight was a killer!"

I thought of this too, but then I realized that security (or the owner of the actual bag) could stand there and go, "Oh, that's okay. Howsabout I wait with you until you actually do get your bag?" The would-be thief would be pretty screwed. And boy would I love to see that happen.

The inability to make an easy getaway made sense to me at first, but I figure with cell phones, a driver could easily say he's about to pull up in front of the gate and the thief could time the luggage snatching appropriately.

I'd think security cams wouldn't be of much help, because if your bag is fairly ordinary, it'd be hard to tell who took it specifically.

But it's an interesting question that runs through my mind every time I'm at the baggage claim. It's like the Seinfeld routine where he talks about weird random thoughts like, "You know, if I wanted to, I could stab this guy and kill him."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:16 PM on December 3, 2009


Pater Aletheias nailed it.
posted by Frasermoo at 10:19 PM on December 3, 2009


"Oh, that's okay. Howsabout I wait with you until you actually do get your bag?"

Although security doing this would be a different issue, the thief could always feign being creeped out if someone offered to wait with them until they received their luggage... It is a rather odd request.

Failing that, it's an easy get away situation - claim your baggage was lost or excuse yourself to the bathroom, never to return. If the person insisted on following you about it would be reason for -you- to call security on -them-.
posted by biochemist at 10:35 PM on December 3, 2009


At most airports I've been to, the baggage claims are openly accessible from the outside...

They are? I have traveled around Europe a bit and don't remember one where there wasn't some kind of control, however lax, between baggage claim and the outside. In fact, I was in Seville, Spain in October and the security people actually stopped me to check the tags on my suitcase as I was walking outside.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:46 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, if there were anything worth stealing in the bag, it was probably already stolen by a baggage handler or TSA screener. (Ha ha, only serious.)
posted by hades at 11:20 PM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Desperate thieves don't care about cameras. How many 7-Elevens and liquor stores are robbed constantly (often by people not even concealing their identity), and they're all videotaped.

Desperate thieves don't care about small value items. Again, people rob cash registers and make off with under $50 all the time.

I also submit that the "rightful owner recognizing you" also isn't a big deal. It's easy to get around this: pick a spot at the very end of the rotation where the belt is about to return inside. Pick out a bag to watch, and make sure it circulates once or twice. Being at that spot means that everyone else is upstream from you, and thus if the owner was there they would have already claimed it.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:24 AM on December 4, 2009


I would think that your average petty thief doesn't have the money to fly

They don't have to fly; in most cities I've been to (such as SF, Houston, and Pittsburgh), you can just drive/take a city bus to the airport terminal and walk right in to the baggage claim. The conveyor belts are literally feet from the pickup area/parking lot.
posted by lunchbox at 12:40 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Probably the biggest reason is that petty criminals, the kind that would randomly steal a suitcase in hopes it contains something they can sell, are poor.

Which means they don't travel by air, so they don't even know how to get to the airport, let alone how to find a baggage terminal, look inconspicuous while standing around the carousel


I don't think criminals are necessarily that poor, and I don't think poor people are necessarily that incompetent.
posted by lunchbox at 12:45 AM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


Great question! I agree with the above that it's probably a risk:reward kind of situation: to avoid being immediately spotted, the thief would have to only take one bag every few days, at the very most. The chance of finding pawnable valuables or cash in that one bag is unlikely. The chance of being caught or recognized or filmed in the act is very high.

Also, airports are usually not convenient places to get to. Unless you have a car, you will be reliant on public transportation to get you back home. This means even longer that you have to wait in front of cameras and witnesses with a stolen bag.

If there was going to be theft of luggage, I would imagine that Chinatown buses would be a particularly easy target. They drop off passengers in the middle of large urban areas, and most people that take these buses are unfamiliar with the city. The bus driver always opens the luggage hatch before people disembark and they never seem to pay attention to who grabs what. Were I a thief, I would linger around the corner until after the driver opened the hatch and nonchalantly grab a piece of luggage. As long as you scoot around the bus, most people would just assume that their luggage hadn't gotten taken out yet, and by the time that all of the bags had been unloaded you would be far out of eyesight.
posted by amicamentis at 12:55 AM on December 4, 2009


I wonder how good this camera footage actually is? Most suitcases look pretty much the same. I know I've picked up the wrong suitcase by mistake and only noticed once it was off the carousel.

Also: yes, busses are a great way to steal luggage. A bus driver once offloaded my suitcase before my stop and drove off without checking that all the luggage he'd offloaded was even claimed.
posted by mail at 1:06 AM on December 4, 2009


The chance of finding pawnable valuables or cash in that one bag is unlikely. The chance of being caught or recognized or filmed in the act is very high.

Again I disagree. I bet you could make some quick cash by selling the contents of a large suitcase to a used clothing store. I have no idea how much they pay but if you took a woman's suitcase with some stylish fashion pieces and I'm sure you could make off with at least $50, maybe more. Even a pile of jeans could probably bring in $20. People break into cars to steal the coins out of the ashtrays, so don't underestimate desperate people. And again re: being on tape, if it's not enough of a deterrent to prevent someone holding up a convenience store or shoplifting from a Target, why would it deter someone from lifting a bag at the airport?

I'm really torn as to why luggage theft is not more widespread. I do agree that the transportation argument seems reasonable. I think another explanation might be simply that there are so many convenience stores to hold up and cars to break into to satisfy the demand for criminals without the extra hassle of going all the way to the airport.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:35 AM on December 4, 2009


I'm really torn as to why luggage theft is not more widespread. I do agree that the transportation argument seems reasonable. I think another explanation might be simply that there are so many convenience stores to hold up and cars to break into to satisfy the demand for criminals without the extra hassle of going all the way to the airport.

I'm not sure why you're torn. You're taking every possible deterrent and claiming it's not good enough, and alone, probably not. But all these reasons together and it's pretty clear why theft (which I'm sure happens) isn't an epidemic.

Going through all these hoops and possible catches in order to sell some clothes for 50 bucks (I don't see this happening at all, but it was your example)?

It simply isn't worth it. There are a ton of other ways to steal that are safer with a much higher possibility of making enough to make it worth while.
posted by Dennis Murphy at 2:19 AM on December 4, 2009


As another possible downside, the airport (in most areas) is a huge place and doesn't just end where the sliding doors close. There are endless parking lots and it's not like if someone starts giving a thief trouble he can just be like "we're cool!" and sidle off down some alley, never to be seen again. There's not a good exit strategy at the airport - you're pretty trapped there on foot, and you need an accomplice for the vehicle thing to work. Even then, you have no guarantee that they can be where you need them.

It's possible as well that a desperate thief who will settle for the $50 or so he may get hawking the clothing at a consignment store looks out of place at an airport and is unable to get away with it as often due to security.

Can one make duplicate keys to the big lockers in train stations? I bet that would be a much easier way to steal luggage.
posted by amicamentis at 3:32 AM on December 4, 2009


Airlines & insurers are on the hook for the stolen bags. So I'd bet repeat offenders are eventually caught. Airport security may recognize regulars that don't look like frequent travelers, i.e. no suit. Airport security may institute luggage tag checks if theft is an issue.

There are often pickpocket crews targeting small carry-on bags and purses after baggage claim when people are searching for ground transportation. It'd take slightly more skill and/or teamwork, but you'd get cash and valuable, meaning you need not steal so often, and you'd get away with it more frequently.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:44 AM on December 4, 2009


Black bags are most susceptible.
posted by goo at 4:06 AM on December 4, 2009


I'd like to add that the main reason why it isn't epidemic is because it's in many way a one-time thing:

First of all, you will get caught on tape even if you successfully get away with one piece of luggage, so repeat attempts at doing the same thing will be riskier and riskier.

Secondly, you would be limited to pretty much one attempt each flight: "Ah, there is my luggage, finally..." "Nope, that's mine. See, it's got my name on the tag." "Oh, sorry. Well, this must be my luggage, then..." "Hey, that's mine! And it doesn't look at all like the other one, why would you - security!"

Thirdly, you couldn't attempt to do it over and over until you got lucky with picking up one of several nondescript suitcases; if you were to hang around those carousels, never picked anything up, and waited around for several flights' worth of loads you would stand out to the security personnel.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:20 AM on December 4, 2009


2 words: dirty underwear
posted by felix betachat at 4:37 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


...in most cities I've been to (such as SF, Houston, and Pittsburgh), you can just drive/take a city bus to the airport terminal and walk right in to the baggage claim. The conveyor belts are literally feet from the pickup area/parking lot.

This is counter to my experience with Canadian and UK airports. There tend to be big heavy doors with lots of cameras, and sometimes a guard, between the baggage hall and the area where you exit or meet your party on the other side.

People going in rather than out would draw big attention to themselves.
posted by generichuman at 5:06 AM on December 4, 2009


People going in rather than out would draw big attention to themselves.

Depending on the length of my flight, I'll often step outside after my flight to have a smoke while I wait for the airline staff to get the carousel going. I've never been given any grief about walking back inside afterwards.

That said, I think your answers have been nailed above. Risk vs reward ratio is just too high to make it worthwhile. Heck, robbing a bodega for the 50 bucks in the register probably has a lower ratio, simply because many stores either don't have cameras or either crappy low resolution or even non-working, dummy cameras.
posted by JaredSeth at 5:27 AM on December 4, 2009


Hm... every US airport I can think of, you can indeed walk from baggage claim to the street and back unmolested at the domestic terminals. Also true in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal... the only Canadian airports with domestic A/D that I can picture in my head. Glass doors to street or parking, no security. For international flights, of course there's a checkpoint or two, since they want you with your baggage while they clear you.

At the carousel, I have stood there waiting, watching people each haul off their identical black bags, and thinking about this. I've also had people leave the airport with my bag accidentally, only to return 20 mins later with an embarrassed expression while I stand still waiting for it to show up. And I've had at least one bag stolen completely, presumably from a luggage carousel where I wasn't paying enough attention. I try to be vigilant, but after a long flight it can be hard to stay focused.

Best advice possible: don't have a nondescript black bag. Cute little ribbons and tags fall off, but it's very hard for someone to plausibly deny mistaking their bag for your neon green Hello Kitty hardsider covered with Deathklock stickers... and it's pretty hard for you to not notice it walking out the door, too.

Also, there was a Trailer Park Boys episode all about this.
posted by rokusan at 5:35 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Okay, so I stole luggage once. Certainly not the nicest thing I've ever done.

I was much younger, stupider and sitting in a high school Physics class. My lab partner Andy (soon to be salutatorian and Harvard bound) and I had finished early and were surfing the net until the end of class (the last class of the day). Andy came across a website that mentioned someone losing their luggage and the $1000 check the airline (eventually, I imagine) sent them. In a frenzy of being-17-and-bored-with-newly-minted-drivers-licenses we decided that this was a victimless crime that would be best carried out by us immediately after school. The bell rang, and off we went.

We drove to the airport, parked in short term parking and moseyed over to the baggage claim area. On the drive we'd decided some basic criteria: pick a generic looking bag (increasing plausible deniability) from an almost inactive carousel (potentially lower chance of confrontation with bag's real owner) after watching it go around at least once (hopefully further lowering chance of confrontation). Taking a bag from an almost abandoned carousel had it's pros and cons -- on one hand it gave us a better chance of scoping the carousel and nearby people, but on the other, it made our actions much more visible.

This was pre-9/11 -- so airport security wasn't all that crazy. That said, security in the luggage area these days is still basically nonexistent.

We split up and found each found a carousel with recent but decreasing activity. After watching it go around a few times, I grabbed a big red rolling bag/suitcase. Andy got a older, brown traditional suitcase. We met back up by the elevator. Adrenaline pumping we hightailed it back to the garage. Threw the luggage in the trunk and left the airport immediately.

Visions of 'free' laptops dancing in my eyes, we pulled over on the shoulder a mile or two down the road to look at what we'd scored: (And this is why people don't steal luggage) Lots of clothes. Clothes beloging to someone else. Not exciting. Not valuable. Just clothing.

I did keep the Cobra Commander t-shirt from my haul for a few years. I don't think Andy kept any of the blouses.

P.S. Karma/Vigilantes: I never check bags.
posted by wrok at 5:37 AM on December 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


Risk vs reward, not security cameras. That's why you hear about laptops, cell phones being stolen at the security checkpoints.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:55 AM on December 4, 2009


Anecdotally, my parents claim that once they were a little late getting to the baggage claim and they were just in time to stop some man from taking a cart full of bags (which included theirs) towards a van he had. It seems like picking up luggage that had not been claimed would be much, much less risky, while picking up luggage hot off the belt really runs the risk of "HEY THAT'S MY BAG".

Mistaken bags happen all the time -- I once had the last black garment bag off a flight into Washington DC. I was approached by at least three very suspicious people who also had black garment bags and wanted to make sure that it was mine before going into the cycle of despair which begins when you realize that your bag's not coming down the chute.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:26 AM on December 4, 2009


woman's suitcase with some stylish fashion pieces

How would the thief identify the suitcases filled with clothes worth selling?
posted by drezdn at 6:38 AM on December 4, 2009


The fact is, very few people are thieves, which is why most stuff goes unstolen 100% of the time.

But then there are these people.

-
posted by General Tonic at 7:07 AM on December 4, 2009


How would the thief identify the suitcases filled with clothes worth selling?

The Tumi bags. $500 for a suitcase. And I don't think they make a low-end line, yet it's not that high-class that there are counterfeits everywhere (like Louis Vutton). If you wanted women's clothes, you'd probably have better luck with bags that weren't black.
posted by smackfu at 7:44 AM on December 4, 2009


I have to report this: In 1989 I was conducting a training class for new hires at a major telecommunications company. We were talking about passwords and security and what you CAN do vs what you SHOULD do in the computer system. Somehow the topic got onto other examples of security and, I swear, EVERY person in that class (8 people) admitted that they had taken a bag from the carousel that didn't belong to them. Most of them talked about doing it while they were there for a flight - they picked up their own bag along with another one and just walked out. I was astonished.
posted by CathyG at 7:52 AM on December 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


every US airport I can think of, you can indeed walk from baggage claim to the street and back unmolested Whereas, in the UK, every airport I have been in stops you from going from the street to the baggage carousel with one way doors. I would imagine you might be able to get back if you asked a member of staff, but that would be pretty exceptional! There's suitable help if you genuinely need help moving your luggage - as such I can't understand why US airports don't do the same thing!
posted by prentiz at 7:54 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I will cut you if I see you reaching for my bag.
Seriously...he would run at you with scissors!


(I'm a she. And my scissors would be in my checked bag you're touching! I might jab you with a knitting needle, though. Those things are sharp.)
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:13 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I bet you could make some quick cash by selling the contents of a large suitcase to a used clothing store. I have no idea how much they pay but if you took a woman's suitcase with some stylish fashion pieces and I'm sure you could make off with at least $50, maybe more. Even a pile of jeans could probably bring in $20.

Where I live, there are no used clothing stores that work that way--they are all consignment, which means you don't get paid until your stuff sells, and payouts are usually once a month, so they are not a source of quick cash like that. Could be different elsewhere, I suppose.
posted by not that girl at 9:36 AM on December 4, 2009


Are airlines legally liable for luggage stolen from baggage claim, or is it simply a "good customer service" practice they follow since it rarely happens? Basically, at what point in your luggage's journey does the airline's liability end?

justkevin: Probably the biggest reason is that petty criminals, the kind that would randomly steal a suitcase in hopes it contains something they can sell, are poor. Which means they don't travel by air, so they don't even know how to get to the airport, let alone how to find a baggage terminal, look inconspicuous while standing around the carousel, and escape by public transit with their stolen suitcase of sand-filled swim trunks.

Wow. Just wow.
posted by mkultra at 9:51 AM on December 4, 2009


I'm certain petty theft from suitcases by baggage handlers happens regularly.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:15 AM on December 4, 2009


Are airlines legally liable for luggage stolen from baggage claim, or is it simply a "good customer service" practice?

Air Alaska, United, Air Canada and Aerolingus (make your own jokes, people) all found the bags they lost within a day or three, and couriered them to my home/hotel. I assume those were all "on the wrong airplane" mishaps.

AA gave me $500 for the one that never came back. I have no idea if they were required to or not, since I can't read 2-point type.
posted by rokusan at 1:04 PM on December 4, 2009


I'm certain petty theft from suitcases by baggage handlers happens regularly.

When traveling in Central America, I leave $50 in a really obvious envelope that says "please take this instead of my things, because I need these things" (in three languages) on top of the packed items in my checked bag.

It vanishes about 20% of the time, which I think is an acceptable return.
posted by rokusan at 1:06 PM on December 4, 2009 [10 favorites]


I would imagine christmas time would really up the chances of scoring some high priced items in checked baggage.
posted by whoaali at 11:36 PM on December 4, 2009


I'm certain petty theft from suitcases by baggage handlers happens regularly

No kidding - I once lost a 10kg sea bream and a couple of octopi, and they ruined the zipper on the bag while doing it.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:34 AM on December 5, 2009


My friend's ex-boyfriend was arrested after the police set up at sting at the Toronto airport maybe 8 years ago or so. Without anyone knowing he had been stealing nearly all the high end luggage, dumping the contents and just keeping the Louis Vutton etc to sell or give to his girlfriend as birthday gifts. He got away with it because he is a wealthy guy who looks it. He smoked cigarettes at the door until he saw something he liked then would walk right in grab the luggage and leave in a town car. Who stops a guy in a $2000 suit? Any way it was such a thing that local news was covering the string of thefts and he eventually was busted taking a planted piece of luggage.

Oh, my friend clearly dropped him!
posted by saradarlin at 5:10 AM on December 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


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