CAUTION : Airport Thieves At Work…and how they do it…

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30/07/09 – CAUTION : Airport Thieves At Work…and how they do it…

I have written about airport thieves many times on Flying With Fish, I’ve been quoted in major newspapers and magazines and even appeared on national television regarding airport thefts…but its been a while since I wrote about this topic.

As the summer wears on and we enter what should normally be the peak travel period for vacationers, I’d like to revisit an important topic. This topic is how airport thieves operate.  I am revisiting this topic because while ‘professional airport thieves’ operate all year preying on all sorts of travellers, they increase their frequency and opportunities during peak travel seasons.

For those unaware that there is such a thing as a ‘professional airport thief,’ make yourself aware now. They walk among seasoned flyers and first time flyers and I have actually corresponded with a few.  Through my correspondences with those who make their living stealing from travellers right up their noses and the noses or airport security professionals, I have gained a significant insight in how to not become the target of these flyers with ‘skilled fast hands.’

So…how do many airport thieves ply their trade? Let me tell you…

How many airport thieves operate is by actually purchasing tickets and flying, just like every other flyer. To operate undetected, these thieves purchase the lowest fare for travel from a high traffic airport and check in early online.

By checking in online airport 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 and using the underestimated art of observation. 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 through security from the ‘public side’ to the ‘sterile side’ of an airport. 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, such as Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) or  New York’s LaGuardia (LGA), upwards of a dozen times. To avoid being easily noticed, thieves go from one check in point to another and use tactics like waiting for lunch breaks and shift changes. By waiting for shift changes these thieves can cross back and forth easily without being noticed by security screeners.

Airport thieves avoid the problem of having their boarding pass flagged due to already being initialed by a screener by printing 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.

Experienced airport thieves fly short point-to-point, or low cost “hub flights” at the end of their day. Why do they fly? Because if they buy tickets to cross through security frequently and never fly, they will raise red flags in both the airlines system and the US Dept of Homeland Security’s system. Airport thieves do not want any red flags. Some full-time thieves gain “elite status” and use airline clubs to further their stealing endevours.

How can you protect yourselves from someone snatching your wallet, phone, camera or laptop when you go through the airport security check point at any airport?  Follow these simple steps to reduce your likelihood of becoming a target.

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 inside your bag. Somewhere that is not easily accessible for a thief to “snatch and walk.”

2) A moment before you place your bags and bins down at the x-ray screener, 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 so you can easily take stock of what you have at the other side of security.

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. Once the items are in a shoe or hat, then cover these items 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!

It is often said the best defense is an offense and knowing your predators play book makes protecting yourself from becoming a target easier.

Keep An Eye Out…and…Happy Flying!


  1. […] ♦ – This isn’t necessarily a photography related item but since we are in the middle of vacation season I thought I would point you to this great article from Flying with Fish.  It’s all about safeguarding your valuables when you go flying and it’s well worth the read.  You can find the article here. […]


  1. Thanks a lot for your Tipps, as I am planning a foto journey to iceland. Your Blog helps a lot so keep on going.
    Greetings Sven

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