Theft At Airport Security Check Points – Don’t Be A Victim!

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03/03/08 – Theft At Airport Security Check Points – Don’t Be A Victim!

A photographer recently e-mailed me that her iPhone had been stolen while going through security at the Philadelphia International Airport. The initial e-mail asked the best course action of trying to deal with the TSA and Philadelphia Police Department, as neither agency seemed to care much about her loss.

The fact is the TSA and most local police departments do not have the resources to track down minor thefts. I informed this photographer that she should contact the TSA Supervisor Desk and PPD at PHL and ask them to review the tapes. Everyone passing through a TSA check point has a name and a “positive ID,” the problem of course is matching up that positive ID and a face. Today I was informed that the PPD pulled the tapes and they could see the man behind this photographer reach into her bin and remove the iPhone………………………….the problem of course is no clear view of the face and no name to match it to.

As I have discussed multiple times before on Flying With Fish, there are some thieves who make their living in airports. People think I am an alarmist; the fact is these people are out there and there are ways to protect yourself, even when going through an area you think is “secure” such as a TSA check point. Who’d be dumb enough to commit a crime on front of dozens of United States Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, Agents? Skilled thieves, that’s who. These thieves are not that dumb, they are skilled and brazen.

What some of these thieves do is this; they find the lowest fare for travel from a high traffic airport and check in early online. By checking in online these thieves can have their boarding pass for a 9:00pm flight 24 hours before boarding the plane, and get through security when the security check point opens at 5:00am. The thieves spend their day people watching. They are looking for body language, items out in the open, people who seem unfamiliar with security procedures and those who seem confused and easily distracted by dealing with all the procedures for crossing from the “land side” to the “air side” of security. The “professional airport thief” has a subtle way of getting in line behind their target. You won’t know the thief is there until they are gone.

In the course of a day a skilled thieve can go through security at an airport like PHL a dozen times. These thieves go from one check in point to another and use tactics like waiting for lunch shifts and shift changes. By waiting for shift changes these thieves can cross back and forth without being noticed, they can avoid the problem of already having a screeners initials on their boarding pass by print multiple copies of their boarding pass on their home computer, hotel computer, or anywhere they choose to check-in online. To blend in these thieves dress like business travelers, carry a roll-aboard bag with a small amount of clothes or a brief case with basic items inside as to not raise any red flags. In short, they blend in and blend in well.

Some very experienced thieves fly short point-to-point, or low cost “hub flights” at the end of their stealing day. Why? Because if they buy tickets frequently and never fly the route a few times they will raise red flags in both the airlines system and the US Dept of Homeland Security‘s system. These people do not want any red flags. Some really good thieves gain “elite status” and use airline clubs to further their stealing endevours.

OK……………….here is what YOU can do to better protect yourselves from someone snatching your wallet, phone, camera or laptop when you go through the TSA security check point at any airport.

1) Before you get to the metal detector place your wallet, phone, keys, watch, or anything else you may have on you that will set off the alarm in the pockets of your jacket or in your bag. Somewhere that is not easily accessible for a their to “snatch and walk.”

2) Right as you are about to place your bags and bins down pat yourself down from one end to the other. By patting yourself down you may find some items, like change in your pockets. Do NOT separate the personal items you have removed from yourself, keep them all in one place, all in one bin

3) Do not cross the metal detector until you see your open bins have started to enter the x-ray machine.

4) From the time you approach the metal detector to the time you arrive back at the x-ray machine NEVER take your eyes off the x-ray machines exit runoff area!!!!!

5) Make sure the FIRST bin you place through is the bin with you shoes, jacket, etc that has your personal items. Thieves will not spend time going through your pockets; they only want what is open and readily accessible. If you need to, place these items in your shoes or in a baseball hat you then cover with your jacket. These thieves can’t rummage for items, they only want what is readily available to them.

6) The second bin through should be your laptop. By the time you clear the TSA metal detector you should arrive at the x-ray machine with the laptop (in a less congested airport you’ll arrive with the first bin). In some airports, or at certain times of the day I place my laptop through first. It is a judgment call on my part.

7) Place your bags last onto the x-ray machine belt . Always place the bag most likely to be pulled for secondary hand-screening last in the order of the bags you are having screened. By doing this you ensure you have all your items in your possession before the TSA Agent-Screener pulls your bag to open it.

8 ) If your bag is pulled for secondary screening (and mine are 90% of the time) be polite to the agent and NEVER act confused by this. If you act confused or become forgetful as a result of your bag being pulled for secondary screening you open yourself up to becoming a target again. This is a clear sign to the airport thieves that you are inexperienced and can easily be distracted.

9) When you find your seat in the gate area try and find a corner, it gives you two walls of protection

10) Just be alert and if need be always travel with a small locking zip-cable and a small combination lock to secure your bags to a bench or post. You never can be to secure!

If I may quote Sgt Esterhaus from the TV show Hill Street Blues : “Hey… Let’s be careful out there!”

Happy Flying!



  1. […] One of the most fundamental ways to secure your laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc., is to always maintain physical control of it.  This is especially important while traveling, as thieves and other miscreants use airports and hotels as prime hunting ground against unsuspecting travelers.   BoardingArea’s “Flying With Fish” blog has a good article about airport security here. […]


  1. Great security tips! Just out of curiosity, how do you know how these thieves operate?

  2. While working as a photojournalist I spent a little more than three-and-a-half years documenting “homeland security” both in the United States and Abroad.

    During this time I spent a considerable amount of time photographing in airports. I was there the first day private security screeners at airports were ‘federalized’, shot the formation of the TSA, spent time with police officers in airports all over the country and learned this information in various airports from various law enforcement agents.

    While I no longer regularly photograph these stories I have stayed on top of this topic and continued to gather information when possible.

    Happy Flying


  3. I fly a lot as well and have had a laptop stole in security..!! So that being said now my decision criteria for putting my laptop through is separation. I try to keep my “expensive” stuff surrounded by my other stuff.. so Shoes, jacket first laptop second luggage last.. If its a day trip with no luggage I look at the person ahead and behind me if they have a laptop I put it through so it wont be back to back laptops going through the xray machine at the same time.. I use the same process for my camera gear.. laptop backpacks and camera backpacks look mighty similar these days.

  4. Great article Fish! Thanks for making us more aware of how crooks disguise themselves innocent looking business travelers, and how they operate throughout the day.

    I fly twice a week, and always fly with a sweater jacket that has zippered pockets, into which I have already discreetly (as in outside of the airport) placed my phone, keys, change, etc., zipping up the zippers afterward.

    I used to put my wallet in the jacket pocket also, but have found after 50 airports or so that my wallet goes through xray and pat down just without issue, so my wallet stays in my pocket.

    I place the loaded sweater jacket on top of my shoes in the first bin, just like you recommend.

    That way, I can recover all of my little personal valuables swiftly and immediately without scooping individual little items out of a plastic tub, and I have my shoes immediately available to me (1) for the walk to where the TSA might take my camera bag for secondary screening, or (2) for the run after any thief who might dare to make off with any of my other stuff.

  5. I put my wallet etc in a zippered pocket of the bag I am putting on the xray machine. I don’t like putting them into a open jacket pocket because pickpockets can easily snatch something and/or I can drop something from the open pocket at either end of the xray machine. In a zippered pocket I’m unlikely to lose anything and a thief would be obvious in any attempt to open it. Plus I don’t need any of those items right away so if I’m running late there is less time lost to putting things back on.

    I usually put a laptop in one crate, my carry-on next and shoes & jacket last in another crate.

    The first thing I do on the other side of security is put my laptop back into its bag & close the bag completely. That done, I put my shoes & jacket back on. Then if I need to I’ll remove my wallet, watch & phone from the bag. I will always at least check to make sure those items are still in the bag even if I don’t remove them from the bag before leaving the security area.

    Although I haven’t done it before, I think I’ll make sure to note the description of the persons in front & behind me from now on, just in case.

  6. Fish,
    Thanks for the added tips. I saw you in Mystic and thought wow, I want to travel with him. I feel better knowing I have done quite a few of these things, but now I know the order better and to be on the look out for the professional theves that would love to get their hands on my bag. Thanks for keeping us up on the way to travel.

  7. Thanks for the insight and tips.

    I think one thing that can help is keeping a camera bag in an inconspicuous bag. I would presume an experienced thief knows that Tamron and Lowepro mean that a camera is inside, but if you put the camera bag in a non-descript carry-on, then they can’t see what is inside (it worked for me at CVG).

  8. Excellent advice and thanks for sharing the secrets of thieves. Before I even enter the security line I always take my Blackberry and put it in my camera bag, along with any metal items like jewelry. I usually put my laptop last, thinking if I get delayed at the metal detector (which can happen if you have multiple security lines going through one like at the Delta terminal in Boston) that I would be able to keep an eye on it.

    If you have a MacBook, I would suggest putting some sort of identifying mark on it. I went through security once and mine was went through the x-ray with another one and it was hard to distinguish which one was mine.

  9. Great info! I love your site I’ll be back! I also linked your info on my website. I wanted to share!

    My Airport tip is this. Carry a few ziplock bags. Put your wallet, cell, watch etc inside of a ziplock bag. take that bag and put it inside your carry on. You can lock it if you wish. I then turn my bag upside down in the tray and put my shoes etc on top. I watch infront and behind me. IF I HAVE a tail or someone in my personal space i ensure they know I KNOW they are there. Theives prefer invisiblility.

    I then ensure my bag goes into the entrance of the scanner then i got thru detector.

    Bill Master AKA ZenAkita photography

  10. I one time went thru security only to find another party, that went thru before me, opening up and rummaging thru my backpack and handbag. They should have known what was their stuff and mine was very different from theirs. (They both had a canvas open tote.) So watch your stuff very carefully. I became very upset, grabbed my belongings from their hands and said very loudly, “That is mine” and walked away. I made a scene a little and they backed off.

  11. Earlier this month, I had travelled on an airline flight to and from Sydney and had taken a laptop computer with me for the first time on a flight. I had to be careful with the checkpoints because of the foreknown risk of thieves who pinch valuable equipment at these checkpoints.
    Here I had made sure that I made my way through the detector once everything was on the X-ray machine’s belt and that belt was moving. I took advantage of the fact that I flew during the late afternoons and had a greater chance to use a lane that didn’t have much traffic. This allowed me time to prepare more easily – using one bin for regular valuables and, because I had to remove the laptop from the bag, I then used another bin for the computer.
    Immediately after I had passed through the detector, I had my eyes on the machine’s exit portal and made sure that everything of mine had come through and was off the belt, then repacked everything together.
    This may be a good chance to use a vacant table or bench in the checkpoint area even if you don’t have your bags manually checked. Here, you can then repack your bags there yet be in the sight of one of the officers.

  12. Great article, very useful, Thanks for making us more aware of how thieves disguise themselves innocent looking business travelers.

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