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On the Spot: Theft among TSA's baggage

Who knows how a traveler's locks went missing, but it brings up the issue of employee theft and how consumers can better protect themselves.

May 22, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel Editor
  • Theft at the airport.
Theft at the airport. (Scott Garrett / For The Times )

Question: My husband and I recently traveled on KLM from LAX to Amsterdam. We used Transportation Security Administration-regulated locks on our suitcases, which we've done several times. When we arrived in Amsterdam, the locks were missing, and there was no note that the luggage had been searched. Nothing had been disturbed; it looked as though someone had merely removed the locks and kept them — theft, pure and simple. This is a small thing, but I find it quite upsetting that a TSA employee committed this petty crime. Have you heard of this happening to others?

Julie May

Los Angeles

Answer: I've not heard of lock theft, but we've all heard of theft within the TSA. The most recent incident involved a TSA screener in Kona, Hawaii, who is accused of stealing cash from the bags of Japanese passengers. How did I learn about this misdeed? The TSA told me, also mentioning that it was a sting operation, which suggests self-policing.

I've been highly critical of the TSA in the past, with ample justification. But in this case, I'm not sure the TSA is to blame, and if it is, I'm not sure it's for the reasons May suspects. First, theft from baggage occurred long before TSA came on the scene; in fact, if you happen to find my father's new electric razor taken from his bag on a 1969 trip to the Bahamas, please send it to me. Second, TSA personnel aren't the only ones who touch checked bags; don't forget baggage handlers who work for the airlines. And third, the locks, as May notes, are a small thing — as little as $10.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez didn't have an explanation either but did note that TSA, despite having a huge ring of keys that should open locks, doesn't always have the right one. Further, if TSA had opened the bags, it should have left a notice of baggage inspection.

None of which is to say that employee theft, whether from a company, a government agency or a customer, isn't a huge issue that has grown even larger since the start of the recession, said Luis Ramos, chief executive of the Network, which works with companies to help promote ethical behavior and put in place standards and practices that help thwart misbehavior.

Now, he said, employees are less apt to turn a blind eye. "We've seen an increase in employees' willingness to report this type of behavior," Ramos said, because they realize that fraud could "cost them their jobs." In a still-staggered economy, the loss to companies is estimated at 7% of revenues — in the billions of dollars, Ramos said. (One U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimate puts that figure at $50 billion, although that includes all types of fraud.)

So how does a consumer know if he is choosing an airline (or hotel or any other organization) that's a viper pit of thieves and con artists? One resource, Ramos said, is a list, created by Ethisphere (which concentrates on ethical behavior) of the most upstanding companies. You can find it at http://www.ethisphere.com/wme2011. I saw some hotels on the list, but no airlines. Surprise.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot respond to every inquiry.

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