Dear TSA, this isn’t my computer

My Lenovo ThinkPad computer is old — at least old in laptop computer terms — plus, it’s big, heavy, and clunky. Chances of the person right in front of me going through the TSA security at Chicago’s Midway Airport having almost exactly the same computer should have been slim to none.

But the stars aligned.

I was anxious to get to a flight, the TSA inspection line was torturously long and slow, then another inspection delay cropped up.

I was held up going through the millimeter wave scanner as an elderly woman in a wheelchair was brought up and allowed to go before me, teetering worryingly in the scanner. And then, yellow squares showed up all over me (who knows why, as I had on tights and a skirt that would be impossible to hide anything under). So, I had to have an extra patdown.

By the time I got through, my container with my shoes, coat, and purse was on the conveyor belt, but there was no sign of my computer.

Evidently, TSA officials had pulled it out to scan it for I don’t know what. When the inspection was over, I had a chance to really look at the computer.

It wasn’t my computer.

Yes, it was the same brand and almost identical, but it had a small sticker on the upper right-hand corner, a business logo. Mine has nothing. No I.D. at all. Uh-oh.

I asked my co-worker to go to our gate and let them know what was happening and, hopefully, they would hold the flight, as I had already checked a bag.

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Now, back to TSA.

“This isn’t my computer,” I told the inspector.

She told me to calm down – sure thing – and led me over to the small cubicle off to the side of the exit from the TSA area. There were two officials in there who very slowly took the not-my computer and again told me to calm down. (By this time I was stamping my feet, closing my eyes and muttering how I hate the TSA, and begging them to announce something over the loud speaker, as it was now 20 minutes before my plane was supposed to leave.)

TSA claims that they announced the computer mix-up over the public address system, however, neither my traveling companion nor I heard any announcements. Finally, time was up. If I didn’t leave for my gate right then, I certainly wouldn’t make it. I ran for it, leaving the not-my computer in their hands. I did just make it, albeit out of breath.

The ticket taker at the Southwest gate said, “Karen? We’re waiting for you.”

“Yes,” I gasped, and was the last on the plane.

On the three-hour trip to Boston, my mind was racing. All I could think about was the plethora of information that was on that computer. When did I last back up the hard drive? What if someone decided to hack into it? Was it wrong to leave the other computer with the TSA or should I have brought it with me for ransom? Would the person who picked my machine up just pitch it?

As soon as I got back to Boston, I got on the computer at a friend’s house. Thanks to the business name sticker — which I didn’t remember quite correctly, but it was a large enough company that it came up on a Google search — I was able to contact them.

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Thank goodness for the Internet, social media and someone at the company who was as compulsive about business emails as I am. I received a reply email to my “request for product information” where I typed in the story about my quest for an employee of theirs who had picked up my computer by mistake. Late that night, the company called telling me that they would investigate for me first thing in the morning.

I received an early morning email saying they were looking. Then, I got an email at 11 a.m. from the fellow who had picked up my computer by mistake – his computer must have been whisked off the conveyor belt before he even saw it and ours were eerily similar, so I can’t blame him for the mistake. He reassured me that he was taking my machine to his company’s mail room to be overnighted back to me. Now, I breathed a real “whew!”

I immediately called the TSA at Midway and got through to the supervisor, who seemed a little more on top of things than those I had dealt with the night before. Even though I firmly believed that my computer was on the way, she told me she would not release the computer they had until I had mine. She even called me the next morning to check if the computer had arrived. I called her back as soon as it did.

The lesson learned?

If you are going through the regular lines at the TSA, put something easily identifiable on your computer (a big flower sticker might work) and include some kind of contact information. Or, go as fast as you can and sign up for TSA Pre-Check, where computers don’t have to be removed from bags.

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I did the latter.

This time, I was lucky. The computer that was left had a form of I.D. on it that I could track. Without that, it would have been many days, and lots more angst, to figure it all out and track it down, if at all.

Karen Cummings

Having been a writer for newspapers and magazines, plus worked in public relations for ski areas, a major cancer charity, and a land development software company, Karen Cummings finds many stories of interest in her travels, her work, and just life.

  • Richard Smith

    Opt out does not necessarily prevent this.

    A couple years back, I was flying out of San Francisco. I’m opt out, they put my carry on, including a very old 17-inch HP laptop, through the machine. I was delayed by an elderly couple in front of me who apparently had problems with which direction to walk through the scanner, and found one of that couple attempting to purloin my laptop. I initially politely noted that the person picked up the wrong laptop, but the person was insistent, and refused to return my laptop until I called over security and made a scene. The person claimed “well, it looked like my iPad” and since elderly people never steal things security questioned me about why I made a scene.

  • AMA

    I do two things to computers, cameras, and phones when I get them. 1) Plaster a sticker on them with my name, phone number, and 2 different emails. 2) Create a document (or, for a camera take a picture) and name it something super-obvious – THIS COMPUTER BELONGS TO! . People may comment on why I don’t have a password/passcode set on my devices – I do, but they are largely useless, as tech writers remind us.

  • AJPeabody

    The first picture on any memory card for my camera is a shot of the “Reward for Return” document that is on my computer. My contact info is thus in both places.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I have one of these on my work computer which lets me put my business card in. Sure people can see where I work, but it makes it a lot less likely there will be a computer mix up:

  • Alan Gore

    I’ve had a few close calls at the point where laptops are coming out of the X-ray area and everybody is frantically grabbing for the right one – or the most expensive one they think they can get away with. I almost lost a MacBook Pro once, when they still made the 17″. I’m glad that now I can travel with an iPad that stays in my bag.

  • Alan Gore

    And always activate the Find My Device feature, if supported.

  • AMA

    “FindMyPhone” on my iphone got it returned when I left it on the train. :)

  • AMA

    You can also just tape a business card to the computer using clear packing tape.

  • Peter

    As I try to always keep in mind, nobody at the TSA could care less if your computer is broken, lost or stolen (sometimes by TSA staff). It’s up to you and you alone to keep an eye on your possessions, that’s the sad reality of air travel today.

  • judyserienagy

    OH. MY. GOD. I cannot imagine going through this and finding that TSA was more concerned about your state of mind than IMMEDIATELY helping. Duh, if they made an announcement why did nobody involved in this story hear it? Are they restricted to ONE announcement per incident? It’s enough to make you put a sticker on your laptop … which I just did, even though I’m PreCheck. Thanks for this hair-raising story, Karen.

  • Carchar

    I guess they never saw “Dirty Dancing…”

  • Carchar

    Just last month, I had gone through the scanner and, as my Dell computer came out, the man right behind me reached to take it. I said, “No, that’s mine.” I lifted the lid, and showed him the sticker with my info on it. Sure enough, his Dell then appeared. I guess I shall now put a sticker front and center on the outside.

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