Outside the terminals, thieves in rented vans will cruise out-of-the-way loading docks and cargo areas looking to make an opportunistic snatch, police say. Or posing as skycaps, they'll offer arriving passengers help in loading luggage into car trunks, only to make off with a bag or two when the owner isn't looking.
"The [bogus] skycaps are the toughest to collar," Marshall said. "Even if we catch them with the goods, they'll say they were on the way to lost and found to turn it in."
With 26,000 spaces, LAX also boasts one of the largest parking lots on the planet.
Recently, police broke up theft rings targeting scores of Saturn cars and Porsche side mirrors. Even parking funds aren't safe. Several years ago, police arrested 30 airport parking lot attendants for stealing about $2 million in fees.
Cruising the busy airport ring road in an unmarked car, Airport Police Det. Cruz said such thievery can change your outlook on human nature. "It makes you a pessimist," he said.
"You look around this airport and everything is a scam. Everybody's out after the almighty dollar, the quick buck. And very few of them are doing it legally."
The man with cerebral palsy is tugging at Joaquin Mendez's sleeve.
Eyes wide, making several plaintive-sounding grunts, he takes the officer by the hand through the crowded terminal, to a nearby ticket counter where, unable to speak coherently, he types his story into a computer for Mendez to read:
He's been robbed of several hundred dollars by a pickpocket who snatched his money and then roughed him up.
Feeling helpless, Mendez listens quietly and--after calling for backup to take a report--finally hands the man a business card with instructions to get in touch if he sees the thief again.
For Mendez, the plight of the near-helpless victim enhances the bad taste left in his mouth by too many heartless LAX thieves.
To stem their profits, he needs the help of airport travelers. For one, he says, passengers should keep their eyes and ears open while traveling. And never take your eyes off your luggage, not even to make a telephone call.
"Up to 90% of these thefts could be avoided if only the victim was more aware," he said.
Police say they can't always rely solely on luck, like the day the man called to turn in his bag-nabbing nephew--angry the youngster had become sloppy in the thefts he had worked so hard to teach him to perform.
So Mendez will stay on his guard. He'll keep an eye out for the bogus baggage boys or self-made pilots who never leave the ground.
"My biggest thrill is making the on-the-spot bust," he said. "Because nothing beats catching a thief in the middle of a well-planned distraction theft. And I mean nothing."
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Thwarting Airport Thieves
Some suggested safety tips for carrying luggage through LAX:
* Never leave your bags unattended.
* Never turn your back on your luggage, even momentarily.
* Never pull airport luggage Smart Carts; always push them.
* Store large amounts of cash in different places. Don't keep valuables such as your identification, passport or cash all in one bag.
* Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
* When traveling alone, wait until the X-ray machine at security checkpoints is the least crowded and try to reclaim your bag as quickly as possible after it passes through the machine.
* Remember, not everyone at the airport is either traveling or waiting to pick someone up.