Attack of the airfare thieves

worker/Shutterstock
worker/Shutterstock

Who could have predicted the furious reaction to the recent story about a woman who booked a cheap airline ticket from Myanmar to Canada, and my characterization of her as an airfare thief?

Not me. But I’m circling back to her case, and the broader issue of fare errors, because many commenters asked me to.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve written about the ethics of taking advantage of a price mistake. I covered the issue in 2010, when a British Airways fare error affected hundreds of travelers. I also refused to mediate a Korean Air fare mistake once I learned that many passengers had knowingly — some would say fraudulently — booked the erroneously-priced tickets.
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Tips to ensure the TSA doesn’t swipe your stuff

Taking Something Always.

That’s what TSA means to airline passengers like Edward Fleiss, a sales manager from Huntington, N.Y. When screeners inspected his wife’s carry-on bag at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport recently, he claims her designer eyeglasses were swiped.

“Great sleight of hand,” he says. “We didn’t even know they were gone until we got to Los Angeles.”

Letters to the Transportation Security Administration — that’s what TSA actually stands for, in case you were wondering — were met with a form response. “Dear traveler, thank you, but no reimbursement on a $500 pair of glasses,” he recalls.

Thieving TSA? You might be forgiven for thinking so.

Since it was created in 2001, the agency has fired about 200 employees accused of stealing. Although the TSA has taken steps to discourage these government workers from helping themselves to our personal effects — including background checks on new hires, video cameras in screening areas and rules forbidding backpacks or lunchboxes at checkpoints — more and more passengers like Fleiss are coming forward to say they’ve been ripped off by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

It doesn’t help that hardly a week goes by without another story about alleged TSA pilferage making headlines. Here’s one from a Miami TV station, where 1,500 items have been reported stolen at the airport since 2003. Here’s someone who had his engagement ring filched by screeners in Los Angeles. Here’s another one involving a 12-year-old’s heartbreaking loss of $265 in birthday money.

You don’t need a travel columnist to tell you this agency has a problem. The evidence speaks for itself.

But here’s what you might not know. The stealing isn’t as random as the TSA may want you to believe. Fleiss visited an optometrist for a replacement pair of glasses, and learned that since the TSA was created seven years ago, he’d seen a “marked increase” in patients requesting receipts for insurance claims relating to security-related thefts. “He said there is a huge market for stolen designer eyewear frames in the New York area,” he added. “You put it together.”

One aviation insider I spoke with believes stealing is a systemic problem the federal agency is unable to control, particularly at problem airports like New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport. Not all of the screening areas in U.S. airports are under surveillance, and the TSA’s rules have a big loophole that shifts liability for stolen baggage claims to the airline when luggage is delayed, he told me. In other words, there’s little incentive for the stealing to stop. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla no one wants to discuss at TSA,” he says.

I contacted the TSA to get its side of the story. Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman, sent me an e-mail to say the agency is concerned about theft. “TSA aggressively investigates all allegations of misconduct,” she wrote. “When infractions are discovered, it moves swiftly to end the federal careers of offenders.” She added that travelers with questions should visit the TSA’s Web site for claim information.

I’ve got a better idea. Why not make sure your valuables aren’t taken in the first place? Here are five tips:

Don’t try to beat the system
If you think you can avoid a TSA theft by steering clear of LaGuardia or Philadelphia, think again. Reader David Cumpston had a $50 bottle of cologne stolen from his bag in San Francisco. They lifted a box of Montecristo cigars out of P.J. Zornosa’s bag in Florida. “Hope someone enjoyed them,” he grumbles. And Jeanne Rose lost one shoe — a brand-new Merrick clog — in Atlanta. Why just one shoe? Who knows? Point is, you can’t predict where a TSA thief might strike next.

TSA-approved locks are useless, so don’t even bother
Anyone can access your luggage after you’ve checked it. Anyone. Don’t believe me? Here’s how to break into a bag without the benefit of a TSA master key. Besides, the TSA likes to confiscate the locks after they’re done rummaging through your belongings, according to readers like Paula Craig. “Sometimes, I get the Dear Paula, we have been through your luggage letter — and sometimes not,” she says. “It’s maddening.”

Don’t pack anything valuable in your checked in luggage
That’s not just a bad idea because a TSA agent or an airline baggage handler might take something; it’s also a terrible idea because if an airline loses it, you probably won’t be reimbursed for it. Joe Zinno, a retiree from Seattle, slipped his digital camera in his luggage, from which he believes a TSA officer removed it on a recent trip. He contacted the agency to make a claim, and after “a very long time” it responded with a form letter. “They said there would be no compensation,” he recalls. Airlines don’t cover electronics in checked luggage, either.

Better yet, leave all of your valuables at home
Packing your valuables in carry-on luggage is no guarantee the TSA — or the airline — won’t be able to get to it. For example, you might have to gate-check your carry-on if there’s no room in the overhead bin on the plane. Or, like Fleiss, an agent could pull a fast one at the passenger screening area. Cheryl Wahlheim, an information systems manager from Boulder, Colo., had jewelry stolen out of her bag by what she suspects was a TSA employee. Making a claim proved impossible. “They sent me a form letter and basically I had to present them with a document containing pictures of all the stolen jewelry, receipts for all the jewelry and the current cost of the jewelry,” she says. “Since most of the things were gifts given to me over the years, I had no receipts and no pictures.”

If you can’t live without it, carry it on your person
Items like wedding rings, cash and other valuables should be carried through the checkpoint, wherever possible. Mauranna Sherman of Lynchburg, Va., wishes her husband had kept a close eye on his medication when he passed through the TSA screening area a few years ago. “When we reached our hotel several hours later, it wasn’t in his bag,” she says. “We had to call our house sitter, who used her own money to deliver it to our family in Texas the next day. What a hassle.”

Bottom line: if you want to see your valuables again, don’t let a TSA agent near them.

There’s one final myth about TSA thefts that needs to be busted, and it involves the claims process. In speaking with airline passengers who claim the TSA took their property, I hear about the same frustrating conclusion almost every time. In the end, they were denied compensation.

Well, the end isn’t really the end. You can appeal your case to my counterpart at the TSA. Its ombudsman can be reached at [email protected]

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