Beware of airport theft

637,000 laptops are lost or stolen each year at US airports.

Security at airports has become intrusive and inconvenient so one would assume that it is one of the safest places to be.  This is not the case.  Statistics suggest that you are more likely to have your belongings stolen at the airport than during the rest of your journey!

Internationally the worst airports for theft are regarded as Heathrow, in London, and the Johannesburg airport (OR Tambo) in South Africa.  In 2007 an analysis of TSA statistics showed that the airports in the USA where you are most likely to have your stuff stolen are Liberty in Newark, New Jersey; Miami, Fort Lauderdale; LAX, Los Angeles, and Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac).

General view of security checkpoint at Munich airport

Image credits: Politikaner, 4 April 2009

The New York Post carried an article in July 2011 that was headed “TSA stands for ‘Thieves Steal at Airports’” because of collusion between TSA checkers and baggage handlers.

Some of the thieves are your fellow travellers.  They buy really cheap tickets to a random destination just to get them past the check-in, go through security many hours ahead of the scheduled departure, and then systematically move belongings from your possession to theirs.  They often dress smartly, so that they do not attract attention.

Security check-points

You’ve taken off your shoes, put your camera, cellphone, keys and wallet in the small plastic tray provided for the purpose of going through the metal detector without the beep going off.  You get to the other side of the metal detector, try and keep track of all your things and settle down at the boarding gate.  You only notice the loss later on board.  Your wallet or mobile phone or camera, etc. is not amongst your current collection of belongings.  This is not just anecdotal or urban legend.

Favourite things to steal, in decreasing order: “fine jewellery”, digital cameras, laptops, DVD players.  They also gladly steal prescription drugs, credit cards and cash.  And guns from checked-in luggage.

Our advice here is simply do not let your guard down when going through security check-points.  Wait for the person in front of you to pass through the scanner before you push your belongings through the scanner.  Check that all the belongings come out the other end.  If you are selected for secondary screening, insist that your luggage accompanies you.

Do not rely on the fact that there are cameras covering the areas.  One traveller told us that in early December 2011 he lost R20,000 going through Johannesburg airport.  The authorities refused to make a case unless he returned to Johannesburg to lay the formal complaint!  He returned to Johannesburg at his own expense.  When they examined the tapes the images were so useless that it was impossible to identify the perpetrator.

One of my team locks all his small knick-knacks in his carry-on bag.  Then just the keys and a few low-value items have to go through the scanner, which is easier to keep track of.  (He also wears jeans with a draw-string top, so that he does not have to take off his belt – it is a considerable distraction having to hold up your pants, track your goods, keep a lookout and get dressed again.)  If the security want to hand-search the bag then he can simply unlock it for them.  (He has yet to be requested to do so.)

This applies equally well to your checked-in luggage.


These are especially targeted at airports and coffee-shops alike.  We mention both as most of us enjoy a good cuppa while transiting or watching the world go by.  Our suggestion is to keep it on the table with you, not under your chair or on an opposite chair as it can be nicked while you are possibly being distracted.

When going through security, keep a close eye on your laptop and what has worked well for us is to have a brightly coloured laptop skin on top which differentiates it.  Possibly your company logo, if you don’t just want colours for the sake of security only.

Travel light

The fewer belongings you travel with, the lower your risk.  Avoid carrying unnecessary expensive jewellery and electronics with you, if possible.  In a number of areas such things will also make you are target for mugging.

Passengers are not above taking at look (or more than a look) through other people’s stuff in the overhead lockers when everyone is asleep.  And checking-in valuables is not particular safe, so the best protection is to not have the items with you.

Travel smart at your destination

If your camera is a must, as it is for many travelling today, you can buy a bag that is specifically designed to be hard to get into by pick-pockets.  Or stick it into a tog bag or a sling bag.

Your checked-in luggage should incorporate anti-theft features.  Use TSA-approved locks, after all, they really know which ones are hard to get past!  There are many good retailers out there, including some good options at Magellans.

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