What To Do If A TSA Agent Stuffs Your iPad Down His Pants

It's an old, and all too often told story: Airline passenger checks bag with expensive electronics equipment, arrives at destination sans expensive electronics equipment thanks to a grabby TSA screener. Often these cases don't end the way they did last week, with the culprit being caught red-handed with an iPad that he'd stuffed down his pants. (Must have been some loose pants...) Turns out that screener, Nelson Santiago-Serrano, had stolen over $50,000 worth of merchandise in his time working at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

How is it that Mr. Santiago-Serrano  hadn't been caught up until now? Possibly because the process of reporting stolen items is labyrinthine, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes not even worth the effort. First, it's not clear who's responsible: the TSA, the airport, or the airline? If the TSA, just looking at the claims page gives the impression that getting your claim resolved could take weeks or months, and that's if you file it correctly. Airlines limit their liability for theft and sometimes exclude items like jewelry, cameras, and laptops.

Artist Shaenon K. Garrity had her $2,000 Macbook Air stolen from her luggage while traveling on US Airways. The bag was misrouted to begin with, left in unsecured areas for hours, and generally mishandled. "I contacted the airline immediately and filed a complaint," she said on ComplaintsBoard.com. "After keeping me waiting for a month, U.S. Airways sent me a form letter telling me that it does not compensate for laptops. If they have a policy of not compensating for stolen laptops, why couldn't they have told me this a month ago instead of making me jump through all these hoops?" Shaenon also contacted the TSA to file a complaint but they didn't help.

Getting the TSA to take responsibility is an ongoing issue in these cases. Maria V had jewelry, gift cards and hair products stolen from her bag. "I reported it to the TSA, but first they said it wasn't their fault because it was the airport's responsibility. Then they said that since I had a card [stating my bag] had been searched, that anything that had been confiscated was obviously an item I couldn't travel with."

Jaymee Goh had a similar experience: "I lost jewelry and my friend lost a new backpack, hard drive, and sunglasses. All of this on the same trip. I reported it to baggage claim; they said it was security's responsibility. But TSA doesn't claim responsibility for lost items."

We asked the TSA whose responsibility it is when items disappear from checked luggage: the airline, airport, or the agency? They did not respond to this question.

Passenger Midori (of Planet Midori) tried a more direct and public method of getting the airline and the TSA to respond when jewelry was stolen from her checked bag. "United wasn’t really helpful until I tweeted about it. ... They sent me to a form which informed me that jewelry was not permitted in checked luggage. It’s as if to say that they know that valuables get stolen so they cover their pretty little butts with fine print and point the finger back to the traveler."

"I tried to contact TSA but to no avail, including their Twitter team. They completely ignored my posts and questions," Midori said in an email. "It’s discouraging. They just wait you out until you give up – all the while getting us citizens used to continued lowering of civility and lowered expectation on privacy of person and property."

Even if you get one of these entities to admit liability, they won't help you find your lost item, they'll only pay you to replace it. When we asked the TSA what steps are taken to discover who is responsible for taking stolen items, a spokesperson stated that "TSA works closely with law enforcement authorities to ensure the individuals responsible are prosecuted..." A security official also told us that the agency employs "secret shoppers" to check up on officers. But they wouldn't give us an indication of how proactive or widespread this program is.

The stories one hears about items being recovered in situations like this are few and far between and usually involve an individual discovering their stolen item on eBay or having extra help in some way. Customers with a tracking and recovery solution installed, such as LoJack for Laptops, are more likely to get their property back. "[A customer's] computer was stolen from [their] checked baggage," a LoJack spokesperson reported. "The laptop was recovered from an airport employee who had access to baggage. The suspect was charged with felony theft, and theft from an airline and terminated from his job."

It's clear that theft in airports is a big problem as the TSA has fired over 200 employees for stealing since 2001.  Even if only a minority of TSA screeners are engaging in this activity, you need to protect yourself because the claims process is so difficult to navigate that passengers either don't follow through on initial claims or don't even bother to start. Barring a chance in TSA policy or more passenger advocacy, the situation stands to continue.

In the mean time, here are steps passengers can take to protect their belongings:

  • The most obvious: don't put expensive items in your checked bags.
  • Even better: avoid checking your bag at all, if you can.
  • Get insurance that covers personal items such as jewelry and electronics. Some travel insurance covers stolen or lost luggage. If you see an offer when purchasing your ticket, read it carefully so you'll know ahead of time.
  • If you must place a laptop, tablet, or smart phone in checked baggage, make sure they have tracking and recovery service apps/software on them. For laptops, there's LoJack and Hidden; for phones/tablets, there's SeekDroid, LookOut Mobile Security, or Find My iPhone (via MobileMe); plus many more.

If your items are stolen at the airport, take the following steps within 24 hours:

  • Report to police in the local jurisdiction as well as the city you flew out of, if possible.
  • Report it to the airport, the TSA, and the airline. Even if one organization tries to pass it off on another, you will have proof that you tried to file.
  • Contact your insurance company if the items are covered under your policy.