Do you still have receipts for that TSA-approved lock?

Like many air travelers who are wary of having their luggage pilfered, Bobby Caldwell took every step he could to protect his property on a recent flight from Albuquerque, N.M., to Chicago. He packed his belonging in sturdy suitcases and secured them with TSA-approved locks.

And it worked. Sorta.

None of his belongings were stolen. But a funny thing happened with the locks.

“When we arrived, we found that both bags were missing their locks,” he says. “At home we searched the bags thinking maybe they were removed and put inside the bag after a check of the bags contents. Needless to say the locks were not to be found.”

TSA-approved locks, by way of background, are special locks to which TSA agents have a master key. If the lock is missing, it’s a safe bet that a TSA agent has removed it.

Caldwell assumed it would be simple to get the TSA to replace the locks. After all, who else would have stripped his luggage of the locks but then left the contents of his bag intact?

So he contacted TSA. Here’s how it responded.

Thank you for your e-mail. In regards to locks on baggage, please be aware of the following:

Please include a repair estimate and original purchase information to help substantiate the claim form. An SF95 claim form is attached for you to fill out. You may submit your claim by fax to (571) 227-1904/2940, by e-mail to or by mail to 601 South 12th Street, TSA-9 Arlington, VA 20598-6009.

We are sorry that you experienced problems during your travels and hope this information is helpful.

Thank you
TSA Claims Management Branch

Let’s have a closer look at the page the TSA referred to in this email. One line in particular stayed with me: “Please understand that unseen forces besides TSA may have contributed to your lock missing or your baggage damaged in transit.”

In other words, don’t assume it was our fault.

I asked Caldwell about the locks. Here are a few details:

The locks in question are one gray Samsonite combo lock, about seven years old, cost about $7, the other was black, Lewis N Clark combo lock, purchased on 11/25/11, at Sears, Vernon Hills, Ill., for about $10.

There are no receipts saved for either lock.

After years of using locks on baggage we never had any taken off and not put back on.

We know that two locks worth a total less than $20 is not a lot of money, but we feel that maybe protocols weren’t properly applied here. Instead feeling like happy holiday travelers, we feel more like victims.

Looks as if the TSA has taken a page from the airline playbook. While acknowledging responsibility for lost or damaged items, airlines often insist on being shown original sales receipts — receipts that their passengers rarely have.

The TSA could easily team up with a luggage manufacturer to send vouchers for new luggage locks to customers like Caldwell. Instead, it throws the book in his face. In fact, the entire claims process, with its forms and time limits, makes passengers believe they’re getting the cold shoulder from the government.

“I don’t think we got a fair shake from the TSA,” he told me. “Their demand for receipts, under the circumstance, is unreasonable. The demand that we submit claim forms within two days is unreasonable. Also, TSAs failure to answer our question about protocols about searches of locked luggage leads me to think they don’t care about the property or feelings of the hapless traveler.”

I hate to move this into the “case dismissed” file, but I think I’d have more luck changing the TSA’s policy on luggage locks than getting it to cough up $20.

(Photo: Daru Man/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Devesh Agarwal

    Even my TSA approved locks have been pilfered, by Thai Airways on a Bangkok to India flight no less and I sympathise with Bobby Caldwell, if the TSA does not demand documentation and just pays up, where will the claims brigade end? It will only end up costing all of us air travellers a lot more in fees.

  • sirwired

    What kind of luggage locks are we talking about here?  Because I’ve seen luggage locks that I wouldn’t trust to secure a pre-schooler’s diary…

    The TSA-approval just means it can be unlocked with a TSA key, not that the lock will survive airline luggage processing.  It my job, we routinely air-ship some test equipment all over the country.  Before we changed locks to a type secured with a flexible cable (vs. a thin fixed hasp) we went through about two dozen locks a year.


    I hate to say it but the locks do not do much for a std bag as you can see here:

    The ones in the video have locks!

  • Raven_Altosk

    Chris, I had to laugh at “Caldwell assumed it would be simple…”

    NOTHING involving a government agency is ever simple. 

    Adding to this that while TSA has also swiped my luggage locks and rearranged my clothes, they have NEVER messed with the lock on my firearm case or my weapon itself. 

    Not sure if it’s a good thing or what, but…you’d think they’d be more concerned with my gun than my boxers. 

    Or not, knowing the TSA.

  • MarkieA

    On the first trip I took with my new luggage, the TSA lock was unlocked, hanging from the newly broken zipper mechanism. Obvious to me that SOMEONE broke it while either taking off or putting on the lock. But there was no note from TSA inside stating that they had inspected my luggage, so DENY DENY DENY from the TSA at the airport. They just beat you down with forms and procedures.

  • Raven_Altosk

    “They just beat you down with forms and procedures.”

    Welcome to government. If you think their problems are big, just wait til you see their idea of a solution… LOL

  • travelfly

    so now the only hope is to photograph your luggage, lock and contents at home, at the airport and when it arrives, as bad as rental cars.

  • cjr001

    “where will the claims brigade end?”

    Do you really think that many people are going to spend time making false claims for a $5 lock?

  • KCFluff

    While I do think that the TSA (which I think should be abolished btw) should require receipts in that there are a lot of dishonest people out there who would say it was a $50  or more lock that was missing, I did just download the free app Lemon for my iPhone that scans and categorizes receipts. So neat and so easy. I did it to keep business receipts organized without keeping files of pieces of paper, but it could be used for all receipts so that if need be, you could find one.

  • Devesh Agarwal

    Look at it from a government perspective and the need to satisfy the auditor.

  • KathyJ

    I bet they (TSA) are going to want original receipts. I know my employer does, as does my local government (for whom I used to work).

  • Bob M

    If you do not have a receipt, how in fact does the TSA know you even had a lock, or perhaps a non TSA lock on your suitcase? You need produce a receipt to return  merchandise to a store etc so what makes not having to prove you purchased locks any different. Without the receipt everyone could claim a loss of locks, that’s fraud but it would not stop people from doing it. I lost on of those locks when I checked my suitcase some years ago but it wasn’t the TSA that took it it was someone at the airport in Warsaw.

  • Bob M


  • Jonathan

    I had a similar experience.  Lock missing, pull attachment missing, note inside from TSA.  Without receipts, nothing.  To me, there’s a simple solution, at least to the lock component.  I’m sure the TSA can get a great deal buying in bulk.  (Not a $500 toilet seat, let’s hope.)  How many times do you see in a store “you break it, you buy it.”  Same thing here.  They break/lose it, they replace it.  I don’t expect a flood of bogus claims.  And if volumes turn out to be unreasonably high, it’s not onerous to add the requirement of a photo of the suitcase at the airport.  (Let us provide that electronically.)

  • Nancy Dickinson

    After reading the article and some postings here, there are some pretty good ideas.  Vouchers or just mailing someone an approved TSA lock are two excellent ways to go.

    As far as the auditors, I’ve taken part in several audits and the auditors only ask for random receipts not every single one.  With an audit the size of the US government, the likelihood of needing a receipt for every single lost lock is infinitismal (sp).

    TSA should just keep in stock at each airport approved locks so when one is lost it can be replaced immediately.

    However, TSA is a government agency, therefore doesn’t use logic or common sense.

  • flip44

    Twenty bucks?  Is it really worth the anxiety and time you are spending fighting a phantom?  I beleive in fighting for principles.
    However, as we all know we are bombarded daily with dire news; there are bigger fish to fry.
    Do you write your congress person? Do it.
    Also, be sure to vote for the right person. 

  • y_p_w

    I know it won’t help Mr. Caldwell now, but I remember buying stuff from, needed a receipt and couldn’t find the original from the box.  I can look up my entire purchase history (back to the 90s) and print a duplicate receipt complete with price paid for every item even if it’s a 3rd party “Marketplace Seller”.  I’ve needed a receipt to redeem a rebate, and I’ve never had a problem using a receipt I printed at home.

    I’ve also bought stuff at REI using my membership number.  Once I returned an item 3 years later using their 100% guarantee policy even without a receipt.  They were able to look it up, and I’d be surprised if they couldn’t print up a duplicate receipt.  They’ve got a variety of TSA approved locks, including house-branded ones.This keycard lock looks really interesting:

  • Karen Gilmore

    Absolutely!  I buy nearly everything online, and always can find the receipt in my archived email.  Amazon has all of your purchases since the beginning of time, and it is easy to look up a purchase by the product name or description. 

    $20 is not such a big deal, but when your suitcase goes missing and you have to file a claim with receipts…

  • Michael__K

    Yet another reason why all baggage screening/handling activities ought to be done under video surveillance.

    Even a receipt doesn’t prove anything.  One could argue that maybe you never actually put that lock on the suitcase in question and are trying to score 2 locks for the price of 1.

  • Michael__K

    If you DO have a receipt, how does TSA know that it was for your lock and that it was fastened to the suitcase in question?  

    How do they know you aren’t trying to get a free extra lock?

  • Linda Jordan

    I use Zip ties.  They are TSA approved and if your bags need to be inspected they have to be cut off.  I have traveled all over Europe using them with no problems.  They are cheap and I always pack extras for the return (in my carry on). You can buy them at the dollar store.  The only problem I had was once when I was 5 pounds overweight and the agent asked me to take some things out and I couldn’t because no one had any way to cut the zip tie off and I was just waved through.

  • Susan J. Barretta

    TSA cares about passenger feelings?   HA HA HA, good one!  Maybe more accurately, TSA cares about feeling UP passengers.

    Seriously, TSA has been known to hire thieves that help themselves to your belongings.

    And TSA does resell what it “officially” steals from you – your items that were confiscated as potential terrorist belongings are still good enough in the view of TSA to profit by them.

  • technomage1

    I admit I’m torn on this one.  On the one hand, I understand the need to prevent false claims.  On the other, who keeps a receipt for an item like this? Perhaps other evidence, such as a photo of the bag with the lock on it at the airport (I personally take these just in case my bag is lost or damaged in transport) would suffice. 

  • dsliesse

    The only benefits to having locks in the first place are (a) they help keep the suitcase closed, and (b) they can stop an opportunistic thief.  Beyond that, they provide no security at all.  Don’t think that the TSA is the only group with a master key; pretty much every baggage handling airport has a master key for every lock made.  While these keys are intended for emergency use (like opening a suitcase that’s leaking all over), that won’t stop a dishonest individual from using them for other purposes.

  • Frank Clarke

    Easy solution: always travel with a firearm.  FAA regs require the firearm to be in a locked case to which neither TSA nor the airline has a key.  The containing luggage is exempt from random TSA inspection unless Xray shows something (other than the firearm) meriting inspection.

  • cjr001

    Well, the government spends $500 for a toilet seat, so I’m sure they can spare some change for cheap locks that TSA will just as likely break as unlock properly anyways.

  • cjr001

    “Not a $500 toilet seat, let’s hope.”

    Wow, that’s freaky. I never saw this line before responding with the exact same thing above. :)

  • francine1039

    When I got my fairly nice Travelpro bag, things went just fine until there was the TSA.  So, rather than have them cut my nice lock, I went to Brookstone.  The TSA “approved” locks were fairly expensive, and I still didn’t trust it or them.  But they had a package of 12 locks for about the same money.  And I have to lock the damn bag, because USAir (I’m out of PHL) damaged the mechanism and I couldn’t close things without locking it up.  The idea with the “cheap” locks is that they can just cut the thing off and you haven’t lost much.  So, I always lock it, and carry another lock for just that possibility (so I’ll have one for the return trip).  And so far they haven’t cut one off.  ;-)

  • Vivi

    I appreciate the OP’s sense of fairness in wanting TSA to pay for the missing locks.  Since some TSA agents have stolen from passengers, I would just be grateful I still had all my stuff and buy new locks. 

  • TheMurMan

    I lose one TSA lock a year, every year, since TSA locks showed up.  So I can verify it happens consistently.  But because the loss value is less that the time value to complain, there does not seem to be any resolution until the TSA improves procedures.  It is another cost of travel.

    Where it really hurts is when the bags then go international without the locks.  That risk of loss is signigicanly greater that domestic, as when clearing customes on the return.

    Of course it would be nice to at least acknowledge the issue.

    I do not believe that only TSA has keys; the mechanism is just too simple.  The additional scrutiny of the TSA operations would ususally limit their access when outside of airline control.

    I also support the habit of photo documenting the contents and bags prior to any trip.  Keep the photos on the cell phone until the trip is completed.

    My complaint with TSA inspections is usually that the contents are all messed up, bags refilled without any attempt to pack for travel.

  • y_p_w

    Luggage locks really aren’t very secure to begin with. At the most the might reduce the chance of someone being afraid of tipping off the owner quickly.

    I could break the average luggage lock open with a pair of screwdrivers.

    If you’re really looking to replace them that often, I’ve seen sets of four identically keyed locks for less than $10.

  • Nick Gilbert

    My TSA approved locks have been cut off by TSA too, a lot of times the cut the loop on the zipper, because its thinner, and then they don’t have to worry about you locking it again.

  • cjr001

    Just remember, kids: some people, as commenters here have proven, care more about the possibility of a few people scamming the government for FIVE DOLLAR locks when we waste COUNTLESS BILLIONS on TSA.

  • letspostthis

    My TSA approved lock (to which my friend’s key also worked) was CUT off (rendering it useless) and put in my suitcase with the notice from TSA that they had inspected my bag. But the strangest occurance was arriving home to find a brand new heavy-duty lock on my suitcase with no key. Had to take bag to the hardward store to have it removed.

  • skoc50

    I only fly 2-4 times a year and I’ve had several TSA approved locks removed with no note indicating they checked the contents of my bags.  The thought of asking for reimbursement never occurred to me.  It just gave me one more reason to dislike flying.  All these little annoying things add up, making flying a dreaded experience.  I now drive half-way across the country to avoid flying.  And I hate driving!

  • William Drori

    I always use Tamperlock security labels. They are the best deterrent to tampering, and if I would see that the label has been tampered with I can call security before I leave the airport. If TSA removes the label to inspect they leave a note. As use see in the Youtube link below, that Delta provided, locks are useless. I even use these labels when I leave my hotel room, luggage is a great place to put things you would rather housekeeping not touch.

  • Alexis Harrington

    Yeah, stolen locks would be annoying (the whole situation of luggage locks is annoying), but if that happened to me, I’d be WAY more worried about what was taken from inside. We’ve already lost a camera to those bums. I can’t carry my whole vacation in a Hermione Granger sort of handbag to stow in the overheads.