Preventing bag theft during TSA inspection
November 16, 2010 2:50 AM   Subscribe

Help me keep my bags from being stolen during the TSA security check.

I'm a fairly frequent flyer. Lately I've noticed it takes longer and longer to get through the TSA line each time I travel, and I'm becoming increasingly worried about the time I'm separated from my belongings. Though I've been lucky so far, I feel that with the new body scanners and the alternative of an enhanced pat-down (which I'll be requesting), the possibility that my bags could be stolen while I'm being checked increases. I've noticed during past trips that I am not always allowed a clear line of sight to my belongings.

On an upcoming trip, I will have two small shoulder bags (purse-size), and a small laptop in a scan-safe sleeve. All my bags are a nondescript gray or black.

I am mulling two ideas. First, I'm considering getting a bright neon-green sticker or fabric to attach to each bag, including the scansafe sleeve that contains the laptop. It would be easier from a distance to realize that someone was making off with my stuff. Second, I'd like to attach my two bags together with a small cable or tie. I think this is legal, since they already sell scan-safe laptop bags in which the sleeve that holds the laptop unfolds but remains attached to the main bag.

Would it raise any red flags to do these things? What other strategies might be successful? I want to act in a discreet but effective way to decrease the likelihood of someone walking off with my belongings.
posted by bchaplin to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
posted by 6550 at 3:05 AM on November 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I work for a chain of luggage stores, not at the airport. So, quite literally, your milage may vary:

- The TSA-Friendly bags are specifically designed by manufacturers with help from TSA guidelines. They are designed to be the way they are and the TSA has approval over each design and each design change before the Travel Sentry logo (The red diamond you see on Luggage locks and Laptop bags) can be added. Sadly, tying your bags together is just going to look suspicious and get you tossed in the "Possibly a Terrorist" line with anyone who brought 3.25oz of toothpaste.

- If your scan safe bag is not "Butterfly" style, the laptop & sleeve are removed from the bag at the checkpoint. It's not actually "scan safe" it's "take less time at the scanner because I don't have to dump my stuff in a bucket".

- Some bags (Briggs & Riley's Verb collection has a few like these) have a length of elastic that attaches the laptop sleeve to the main bag. If your bag is like this, the laptop sleeve remains connected, but can be pulled fully away from the rest of the bag. This gives them a clear scan of your laptop. Pull the laptop sleeve FULLY from the bag and the elastic to it's maximum length so it's away from the zippers.

- NOTHING goes in the sleeve (or the laptop compartment on a butterfly bag) other than the laptop! No cords, no cables, no USB drives. nothing. They need a clear view of the laptop when they scan it. Adding extra wires just makes it look even more bomb-y. .

- Ribbons, stickers, patches... they're all fair game as long as they don't set off the metal detectors or look weird to the xray machine. Feel free to make your bag as colorful as you'd like. Might I suggest a luggage tag from Dynomighty that sends exactly the message you want to send?

You said that you are carrying two bags and the laptop sleeve. Does the laptop sleeve belong in one of the bags? Are these in addition to your carry-on suitcase? Because, if so, you may need to make sure you can easily fit one of those shoulder bags inside the other. I've had at least one customer call and tell me that they're not allowing people to carry a purse and a laptop case or a purse and a backpack, etc. Of course, the solution to this is (right in front of the TSA agent) to shove one inside the other. Tah Dah... one personal item.

If you're considering one your carry-on bag, just remember you'll have to stow it in the overhead.
posted by aristan at 5:19 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: My wife got pulled for a grope and explosives swab on Monday. While she was standing off to the side out of site waiting for the agent that would grope her, they handed her a flyer stating that TSA was not responsible if your bag is stolen while they detain you. Luckily, the TSA agent that was there with my wife was a reasonable one and she grabbed my wife's purse and backpack off the conveyor for her.

So it sounds like TSA expects stuff to be stolen, if they are covering their ass up front.
posted by COD at 5:41 AM on November 16, 2010

The bag getting a green light and sailing through inspection while the owner gets a shakedown seems to me the most likely way it would get stolen. If anything I'd be more inclined to make my bag difficult for TSA to inspect, so that I can beat it to the end of the conveyor belt.
posted by crapmatic at 5:41 AM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ask to keep your bags in sight at all times. If the bags have completed their way through the scanner, ask to retrieve your bags. If you get any attitude at all from TSA over this very reasonable and very legal request, if they accuse you of not complying or ask in a threatening way if you hope to get on your flight, then stop and ask for a Law Enforcement Officer immediately. Keep asking for a Law Enforcement Officer until one arrives. Repeat your request to retrieve your bags and keep them in sight at all times. Continue to be polite, but be insistent and firm. We have to keep our bags within sight. That's all you're asking.
posted by onhazier at 6:13 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't tie a ribbon anywhere on your luggage. It increases the risk of your luggage getting caught and mangled somewhere, and then lost for a day or two at best, and broken all apart at worst. My SO and I used to do lost luggage deliveries together, the most mangled of luggage would have broken, torn-up ribbons where it clearly got caught somewhere in a conveyor belt (And the luggage would be taped back together, with clothes hanging from its wounds). I'm sure it's far more likely if you have crappy Walmart luggage instead of something expensive and durable, but seriously. Everyone has a ribbon anyway, I like the large neon sticker idea. Perhaps even with your last name written in black permanent marker inside the neon.
posted by kpht at 6:17 AM on November 16, 2010

A few years ago I put big bold strips of red duct tape on all my (admittedly crappy) luggage and I've felt smugly proud every time I've flown since then because they make everything so much easier. I know they're mine the moment I see my bags coming down the chute, I can always identify them in a crowd of similar bags, I never for a moment get confused about which bag is mine, and no one else does either. Now, I understand that you are asking about carry-ons, but the principal would be just the same.

I guess, yeah, bottom line: your neon-green sticker idea is the way to go.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:26 AM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the replies so far.
(And sorry, despite doing a search I didn't find the similar question that was asked recently, or I might not have posted this.)
Just to be clear, though -- I'm talking about carry-on bags, not checked luggage. I'm tempted to go with the sticker idea, so if I am detained I can easily identify my stuff by pointing and ask a TSA agent to bring them to me. In my experience they are usually polite, but due to all the recent changes in the system and the news coverage about it, I am more concerned than I was even last time I flew (only a month ago, but before the full body imaging machines were installed in my airport).
posted by bchaplin at 7:01 AM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and artisan -- awesome answer! That gave me a lot to think about.
I just have the two fairly small bags, one of which holds the laptop in the sleeve. No suitcase. I believe this is allowed. Also, when flying, I usually carry a foldout bag IN one of my other bags as well, so that in a pinch, if I have to consolidate everything into one for the sake of getting through a gate check, I can do so. Silly rules!
posted by bchaplin at 7:09 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: Hopefully your ideas and the suggestions above will keep you from losing your bags, but in the event that a bag of yours disappears, my story might be instructive.

Two years ago, my wife and I were traveling through SFO and we were separated from our bags as we were flagged for secondary screening. We were very vocal about wanting our stuff to be in sight and be safe but our concerns were basically blown off and we were kept in glass boxes while we were patted down and searched. And sure enough, my laptop was stolen.

The TSA team was incompetent and insulting. First they questioned whether I'd even had a laptop and might just be making it up (yes, really). Then they offered me claim forms to fill out. I told them I wanted them to call the police and to review video footage of the incident which had just happened. They refused, said "we can't call the police." I pushed and they finally offered: "well YOU could call the police." And that's just what I did. In less then 10 minutes there were half a dozen police officers on bikes on the scene, they reviewed the video footage which clearly showed a man taking my laptop, did a sweep of the terminal and pulled the thief out of a line boarding a plane to Las Vegas. My laptop was recovered and the police officer in charge told me that "this happens everyday."

The moral of this story: If your bag goes missing--and they frequently do--DO NOT spending anytime working with/expecting the TSA will help you recover the bag, IMMEDIATELY call the police.
posted by donovan at 7:40 AM on November 16, 2010 [30 favorites]

When I opted out a few weeks ago, I was not allowed to stand where I could watch my bags during the 10+ minutes it took them to get a female officer out to grope me. When she came, however, she had me point out my bags, noted I wasn't allowed to touch them and she pulled them off to the side and asked me to keep an eye on them.

The officer who searched me was very professional and polite. The other TSA officers were neither.
posted by QIbHom at 8:13 AM on November 16, 2010

If you're willing to deal with a bit of hassle, Lifehacker had what I thought was a great idea
posted by rtimmel at 8:22 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: One thing I like to do is to make my bag visually distinctive. That way, it's easier to watch when it's stationary in sight and easier to watch for someone walking away with it if it's not in sight. If my bag is the one in caution orange color, it's going to stand out substantially compared to yet another black laptop bag.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:26 AM on November 16, 2010

Also -- I would imagine that a thief would be deterred by a brightly stickered item (perhaps even sticker your laptop?). But IANAT.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:51 AM on November 16, 2010

Best answer: I'm a photographer who travels frequently and prides herself on her "Gaffer's Tape Plaid" laptop bag.

Easy to come by, so much easier to work with than Duct tape, uber-sticky on everything, and available in a rainbow of colors (even neon & stripes!)

Gaffer's Tape Source #1
Gaffer's Tape Source #2
Gaffer's Tape Source #3

It usually elicits a chuckle from everyone, even the TSA goons.
posted by muirne81 at 10:09 AM on November 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

Donovan: What number did you use for the police? A local non-emergency number, 911, something else?
posted by redfoxtail at 10:44 AM on November 16, 2010

Unless you're a millionaire or a dealer in priceless gems, I think you're overthinking this. Every time I fly, I notice that like half my fellow passengers have laptops. Wallets are on display. Keys and designer shoes are tossed willy nilly into open containers. And yet I doubt there is really all that much theft that goes on. Mainly because everyone is doing exactly what you're doing - participating in TSA security theatre. Nobody is there to steal from you. Everybody has about the same level of stuff. Everybody has paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of doing this. Or, for the TSA and airport employees -- is a used laptop or the cash out of a wallet really worth getting fired and possibly blacklisted over?

Sadly, tying your bags together is just going to look suspicious and get you tossed in the "Possibly a Terrorist" line with anyone who brought 3.25oz of toothpaste.

Oh, come on. I fly a few times a year, bring whatever bags I feel like, present them in whatever way I feel like, and have never had any problems. OP, if it will make you feel better, sure, tie them together. Why not? Just make sure it's removable if the TSA folks ask you to separate them for whatever reason. YMMV if you are a "road warrior" flying weekly and every trip through security needs to be seamless or it will ruin your delicately balanced life. But yeah. Way, way overthinking here.
posted by Sara C. at 1:14 PM on November 16, 2010

//Nobody is there to steal from you.//

It's a crime of opportunity - crowd of people, uncontrolled personal belongings, and a seemingly secure environment, except that nobody is assigned to making sure personal possessions get back to the right person. In fact, as I mentioned above, TSA specifically (and in writing) rejects the idea that they are responsible for the security of your belongings while they detain you. Add to that the fact that the victim is likely pressed for time, and it's really an ideal place for some petty thieving.
posted by COD at 1:36 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again folks!
I went out at lunch and bought some orange neon luggage tags that I can clip to my carry-on bags. After reading through the comments I'm convinced there's no issue with also using a (nonlocking) cord to attach my laptop sleeve to the bag, so that it will lie separately but would make it awkward for someone to grab it and run. Both the bag and sleeve have D-rings so this is simple to do.

Sara C: I appreciate the spirit of what you are saying. I don't fly every week, but I do fly a lot more than average. I agree that the odds are on my side; it's a testament to peoples' basic honesty that we don't see more stuff stolen when going through TSA. However, it does happen enough, based on statistics and stories I've read, so that I don't consider it a non-negligible risk. These are my personal items, and it would be devastating for me to lose them right now. So I am putting the extra effort into making such a 'crime of opportunity' more difficult for a potential thief.

Hope these ideas help someone else. As always, there are some great suggestions here.
posted by bchaplin at 2:42 PM on November 16, 2010

I think the bright tags are a great idea. Your biggest risk is probably in someone grabbing the wrong nondescript black carry-on, and this guards against that in addition to making your stuff less attractive to thieves.

it's really an ideal place for some petty thieving.

Not really, because in order to be in the line in the first place, you have to have paid hundreds of dollars to book a ticket on a flight. If you had the money to do that, you would be unlikely to need to steal other people's carry-ons. Even if we're talking laptops, the price of a cheapish flight is still at least a third of the price of a cheap brand new laptop. And since the setting precludes pro thieves, it seems like way too much risk to likely end up with an old piece of crap that's on its last legs. Before you even get into the fact that it's a controlled location with police on site.

If anything, you'd be much more likely to be pickpocketed in a situation like this. Keep an eye on your wallet and leave expensive jewelry at home. That's probably the extent of the necessary precautions for the average traveler. Though a sticker or gaff tape or a bright luggage tag is obviously a great idea, for both theft reasons and other security/loss related reasons.
posted by Sara C. at 3:01 PM on November 16, 2010

Sara C. -- nonetheless, many thefts occur. As noted upthread. I don't find the question paranoid at all. Even if your chances are low, the loss can still be devastating.
posted by alternateuniverse at 3:03 PM on November 23, 2010

Response by poster: What actually happened (original poster):

I used orange tags and green gaffer tape to distinguish my bags. The TSA did not body scan me (by luck of the draw), but did pull aside one of my bags on each trip and re-scan because they contained electronics (11inch Macbook Air, Kindle) that were supposed to be allowed to remain in the bags, but the TSA personnel seemed to be unaware of this. The green tape made ME feel better and made it easier to point from across a crowded room and say "Yes, this is my bag!". The tape removed without leaving residue.
I will use the same system next time I fly.
posted by bchaplin at 12:05 PM on December 3, 2010

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