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

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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  • rosey1

    I made the foolish mistake of packing my Bose Stereo-noise canceling earphones in a checked piece in the Seattle Airport. Yup, they’re gone.
    For those who “insist” that most TSA employees are honest, I submit that the reason why most are not prosecuted is because TSA doesn’t care. Most people will not submit a claim because, like most government…it goes into the round file.
    Remember folks: “This is the same government you are entrusting your healthcare to.”

  • Jeff Blakeman

    I got it back! see the story here:

  • kaylen spooner

    I was traveling through Philly from Amsterdam to LA and was randomly selected for further screening. My computer, purse, and video camera where coming through the xray. I asked the lady TSA agent if I could get my things. She said NO. I asked if I could wait 30 seconds for my husband to get through the metal detector so he could collect my things. She said NO. I said I didn’t want to leave my things, could I just wait for my husband. I was stalling…he was almost through. She said, ” nobody is going to steal your shit!! Get your as in the room!” I walked toward the glass screening room while trying to keep my eye on my things. She screams. NOW!. I called her a bitch and walked into the room. She followed me in, pointed her finger at me and said, ” watch your fucking mouth, if we where on the street, I would kick your ass”. Wow, Of course I complained to the other tsa agent that was there, but nothing happened. They can do anything they want. Talk to you anyway they want. Touch you anyway they want. Something must be done.

  • dduncan14

    Tampa TSA swiped my 13 year old’s Kindle out of his carry on while he was being scanned.  Claim denied.  Go figure!

  • ehomer

    Yesterday , after flying from Las vegas to sfo, my husband found a note that homeland security had inspected his luggage. He had come from a medical conference so he had sample syringes from vendors – they left one uncapped so he stuck himself. His shampoo was in a ziploc bag but they left both shampoo & ziploc open so it was all over luggage. WORST by far was that a full prescription bottle of a powerful prescription benzodiazapene was STOLEN! Who is watching these people? They should have cameras trained on them at all times.

  • HS

    Yesterday came from XNA Northwest Arkansas… and the TSA stole my mother’s jewelry, besides ripping many bags in which they were contained and leaving a mess with the rest of our stuff… can’t believe this is actually happening in the USA… how is one supposed to travel when obviously you can’t carry everything with yourself? Why do they even have SO MANY screening machines and security if they still have to open the bags?

  • Pom

    Tsa stole my video camera which was wrapped in several items of clothing! Merry friggin Christmas to me. Disgusting!

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Pom,

    You’re not alone. In my case, it was “Happy friggin’ Thanksgiving”. I had my pain-control medication stolen out of my checked bag on my way from Sacramento International to Las Vegas on Thanksgiving day. Here’s what TSA had to say in answer to my complaint…

    “Thank you for your e-mail regarding missing and or damaged items for your checked baggage.

    The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regrets that you found items missing and or damaged from your checked luggage. TSA is required by law to screen all property, including checked baggage, that is brought onboard commercial passenger aircraft. To ensure the security of the traveling public, it is sometimes necessary for Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) to conduct hand inspections of checked bags. TSOs receive training in the procedures to properly inspect passenger bags, and are required to exercise great care during the screening process so that when bags are opened passenger’s belongings are returned to the same condition they were found.

    Please note that TSA assumes a very limited role with respect to checked baggage handling. We are only responsible for checked baggage from the time it is presented for screening until the time it has been cleared of screening. Once checked baggage has been screened and cleared, airlines are responsible for transporting it to its final destination. As a result, the amount of time checked baggage is under TSA control is relatively short.

    Many airport have automated in-line baggage screening systems which can screen and clear a bag remotely, resulting in no physical inspection at all. However, if a TSO needs to open and search a checked bag, the TSO will place a Notice of Inspection (NOI) inside the bag to alert the passenger that his or her bag was searched by TSA. Additionally, the NOI contains instructions on what to do if the passenger has a complaint. The lack of an NOI suggests that TSA might have never physically opened a passenger’s luggage.

    TSA encourages travelers to pack valuables including jewelry, electronics, money, and fragile items in their carry-on baggage and not in their checked baggage. Passengers are allowed one carry-on in addition to one personal item, such as a laptop computer, purse, small backpack, briefcase, or camera case. This information, along with addition travel tips, is found on the TSA Web site at”

    I love the part that says… “if a TSO needs to open and search a checked bag, the TSO will place a Notice of Inspection (NOI) inside the bag to alert the passenger that his or her bag was searched by TSA”. I wonder if that rule is followed by all the TSA thieves, too?

  • bodega3

    Why was medicine in a checked bag? I agree that checked luggage is a concern and I don’t understand why cameras and security isn’t behind the scenes to protect it.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Yeah… I remembered not to check my iPad, but forgot about the pills. Isn’t it wonderful that we have to think that way? Damn TSA.

  • Lisa Simeone

    The TSA also steals plenty of stuff from people’s carry-ons (iPads are a special favorite), so taking your property in a carry-on is no guarantee of anything.

  • Lily

    I am careful in always carrying my expensive items in my carry on and not my checked baggage, yet I still managed to have my ipod stolen while my carry on went through ‘extra’ screening when I traveled from the UK through Houston. Don’t assume your carry on bags are safe either!

  • Tinyrucat

    a couple days ago went though Philly international airport with only carry on bags. We took out our electronics and was rushed through the machines even had to go through the big body scanner with the tsa worker insisting he push the bags through. Once we got through my iPad never came through the other side of the X-ray machine. After an hour of “searching” tsa tried to claim we never had it. We filed a report and I luckily had my iPod set to find my iPad. Once we reached our final destination I got an alert my iPad was in an awful neighborhood in Philly. I hope to not only get my iPad back but the ass who stole it get fired and go to jail.

  • ZIO

    I am an international passenger and flew from Dallas to İstanbul last week (March 20 2013) thru JFK. I had to check my luggage in in Dallas and all the way to Istanbul.

    When I arrived in Istanbul I was shocked to see that my luggage key (original Kipling – supposedly TSA approved) was broken and my luggage was upside down and inside out and the Beats earphones I got for my niece along with other Apple accesories for my ipad and iphone were missing.
    I felt like I was raped, I had refused to go back to the States for a very long time (I am a Fulbright fellow so had spent quite sometime in the country in the past) because of the insane security applications. But having seen that those security mesures are only to secure a group of monsters created by the state itself, I dont know when I will go again.

    They have created a monster themselves (terrorists god knows from where) to terrorize the whole world. This is what capitalism is I suppose.

    Reading all these experiences comforted me a little, though. I am not lonely.

  • Infidel Scarlet

    I don’t accept this. I had a bag with two TSA locks on opened, and some of the contents were gone when I arrived at my destination. I know what I put in my bags, and I know when I put locks on. Not just this, but why don’t the TSA actually respond to claims within the time frame they say they will? If I’d known that the half day it took to find the reciepts from years before, fill in the claim form, FAX all the documents (who uses fax machines nowadays?) was going to be a complete waste of time, I would have just sucked up the $500 that the items cost me. But this kind of sloppy attitude only adds to the anger and frustration. There are plenty of examples of TSA agents being caught red handed with items they’ve stolen. You only need to look at YouTube to see them. I had great respect for the TSA until recently. Now it’s the pits. What’s more, I’ve encountered some very rude, authoritarian and disrespectful TSA agents during my travels.

  • Remelia Lane

    Why oh Why is the TSA allowed to get away with stealing from checked luggage , As a Senior on a budget I can’t afford to replace all stolen item ,

  • Willie

    Dump the TSA and let the airlines do it like they did before. I had a friend who work with the TSA when they first started and after a few months he quit because of the antics that he saw them do, he pretty much had it with working with these incompetent people I wouldn’t trust one of them as far as Ii could throw one, just recently a friend came thru the line. ,and he was pulled over to have his hands etc swiped for gun powder residue, why? He then realized that he had a cap that said Berks Country Patriots. So this s the way good upstanding people are treated, kind of make you sick doesn’t it Our govt. at work.

  • Willie

    Why doesn’t the TSA provide a box or US. Mailer that if you have something that won’t pass inspection can at least be sent back home in a US postal mailer. Does that take to much common sense. TSA. Please try to work with us instead of being so stubborn and an all around pain in the ass.

  • Sue Miller

    I just had a package of Ativan stolen from IAH Houston yesterday!

  • EJ

    Just bought three beautiful tops in Seville on my last day in Spain, and I know I had them in my packed luggage as I used my body to be sure the suitcase was closeable before boarding my plane in Barcelona.

    When I just opened my luggage, the bag I stored the three shirts in was empty and folded up. I am positive this happened in Philadelphia as when I got to my final destination in L.A., the luggage seemed a bit less full but I assumed things compact during the flight (they usually do) due to air pressure.

    I think this happens because the TSA employees are probably not well paid, financially strapped, resent the “rich” people who get to travel abroad and feel entitled to help themselves to the belongings of the passengers they feel are doing better than they are. Learned my lesson. Nice things travel with me, even if I have to wear every stitch of clothing to get past the ogres in the US airports.

  • EJ

    I leave my valuables at home, but sometimes you find nice things to buy on the other end. The person who inspected my luggage had the nerve to leave the bag the shirts were in and fold it neatly to shove it in my face that she helped herself to a new wardrobe add on.

  • Eve Breckenridge

    I just lost my car keys and GPS which were in my checked bag.. am realizing my GPS gives home address. 300.00 to replace car keys.. feel helpless