What TSA’s iPad theft problem means for your next flight

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TSA agents seem to have a thing for iPads.

Apple’s tablet computers are easy to swipe from unwitting airline passengers and can be sold quickly online, as I noted earlier this year.

You’d think the TSA would do something about the wave of thefts reported this spring. But instead, it has apparently done nothing.

Less than nothing, if a new investigation from ABC News is to be believed.

But the report shines a light on a system that allows more than a few rogue TSA agents to get away with filching your electronics. That institutional flaw also allows other airport employees and airline workers to commit additional crimes against air travelers.

The problem may be far bigger than the broadcast suggests.

ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross conducted a sting operation in several American airports, leaving an iPad at random checkpoints. Most were returned. But not all of them. A screener in Orlando took the bait, bringing the device home. The video of the confrontation between Ross and the thieving agent is troubling on many levels.

The TSA’s response? It posted a statement on its blog, claiming it didn’t have a problem.

To put theft at TSA in perspective, between May 1, 2003, through September 2012, a total of 381 TSOs have been terminated for theft, which represents less than 1/2 of one percent (0.4 percent) of officers that have been employed by the agency. This extremely small percentage does not reflect the dedication and professionalism of our workforce as a whole.

Who’s responsible?

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The real issue — glossed over by both ABC News and the TSA — is that when an iPad disappears, no one entity can be held responsible. Airlines have clauses in their contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between them and their passengers — that specifically deny liability for valuables such as electronics.

For example, United Airlines’ contract (PDF) says it “shall not be liable for the loss of, damage to or delay” of “electronic and mechanical items, including cell phones, electronic games, and other related items.”

When I try to mediate “missing” items cases, I’m bounced between an airline, which claims its contract lets it off the hook for vanishing iPads, and the TSA, whose claims process is a figurative black hole. I haven’t heard of a single passenger who has received a replacement iPad from the agency.

What should happen? Someone needs to say, “it’s my responsibility” from the moment you set foot in the airport until you’re picked up at the curb.

Do these iPad thefts, to quote Rep. John Mica (R.-Fla.), just represent the “tip of the iceberg”? Maybe.

Are TSA agents, baggage handlers and other airport employees taking advantage of an institutional loophole through which you could fly a jumbo jet?

Without a doubt.

The TSA agents caught by the ABC dragnet were not pros. They were clumsy amateurs who didn’t bother erasing the iPad after they pilfered it. The expert criminals working at America’s airports, and taking advantage of an utter lack of accountability, don’t make that mistake.

For a good example of corporate responsibility, consider what happened when Jennifer Linn lost her iPad while she traveled between St. Louis and Milwaukee on Southwest Airlines last month. The device contained sensitive information from her employer.

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When Linn phoned Southwest, a representative told her it had found the iPad. She filed a report, and eventually the airline overnighted the tablet computer to her address at its expense. The process wasn’t without a few hiccups (I had to get involved at one point to help move things along) but to its credit, the airline took full responsibility for the misplaced device.

Until there’s a clearly articulated system of accountability that includes the airline, airport and TSA — minus the weasel contracts and the “can’t-help-you” claims process — thefts like the ones documented by ABC are bound to continue.

It isn’t just dishonest TSA agents you have to worry about. It’s that from the moment you arrive at the airport, many eyes are on your iPad.

And when they take your tablet, they’ll probably get away with it.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Emanuel Levy

    If the TSA agents are stealing Ipads, it makes you wonder what else is being stolen?

  • I’m not sure why the airlines would be responsible for missing items? It’s hard to prove whether an ipad went missing from your luggage or was taken at a security checkpoint or even by another passenger. The only way I think I’d be able to place the blame is if I definitely saw the ipad in my bag before security and didn’t see it there on my way out. But then again, I have a mental checklist of all my valuables and take a few seconds after security to make sure everything is there.

    Thieving TSA agents are despicable, though. It probably has something to do with them seeing so MUCH stuff to pilfer all day, every day.

  • commentfromme

    they pillfered my $60 bottle of name brand perfume. I sent my husband to get it and it was gone within an hour never seen again

  • technomage1

    Part of the problem is the current system involves separating the traveler from their belongings.  As I passed through security (while in uniform, no less) I was detained, patted down, and my hands swabbed for explosive residue after I was forced through the body scanner (yes, I know they’re not supposed to do this.  They did it anyway).  I was not permitted to get my carry on, which contained my laptop, checkbook, deployment paperwork, and ipad.  In my case, nothing was missing but the process is rotten.  It would be better to allow the traveler to collect their belongings from the scanner first and then put them through any additional screenings like pat downs or hand swabbing.

  • BobChi

    Put it inside a bag you will carry on the plane with you before you get to the checkpoint, and check immediately after security that it is still there. That check shouldn’t add ten seconds to the process. That said, the TSA response seems absolutely in character with their sense of unaccountability and arrogance. Congress needs to get a handle on it, but they’re too intimidated.

  • orsay

     How in the world does ANOTHER passenger into your checked luggage?!?!?

  • jerryatric

    If only theft was the only problem! Passing through 2 seperate cities I noticed the people scanning the contents of bags were otherwise engaged in talking & joking with other agents & not even looking at the items going through – great security!

  • SoBeSparky

    If you leave anything behind, why is that location responsible?  Airline, TSA, hotel, restaurant or any other public place, it makes no difference.

    I left a very expensive watch behind after washing my hands in a famous expensive Chicago hotel public rest room.  It was gone in less than five minutes.  Was the hotel responsible?

    You leave a cell phone or tablet behind in a restaurant.  Since when is the restaurant responsible for your carelessness?

    This is all about trying to offload personal responsibility and blame third parties for your own faults. I never blamed another party for anything I left behind.  I was stupid.  If someone found it and returned it, then I also was lucky.  But blame the location?  Come on.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Or what they could be slipping into bags…

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Ah, yes. The largest terrorist organization in the world (TSA) rears its ugly head again. I love how Blogdad Bob just blows this incident off as another “one off”. I can’t wait for the day that some of these TSA “people” are subject to their own nonsense. It will be glorious indeed when Curtis Burns’s iPad goes missing. Oops! Just another one off, buddy! Have a nice day!

  • lost_in_travel

    Some TSA agents require the iPad to come out and go through the x-ray in a separate bin just like the laptop, so two bins  added to the shoes, belt, jacket, 3 ounce baggie in another, and the carryon bag it self, it becomes simpler to get separated and all the more important to keep one’s concentration.

    I  had a “helpful” agent try to hand me things from my bins to rush me along – he assumed my white hair meant incompetance – and tried to sweep awaythe bin before I could be sure it was empty.  I thanked him, but said I have a set pattern to how I took things out so they will go back in and he was putting me out of sequence so please don’t help me, and called him by the first name I had just heard his buddy call him.  He was taken aback by my observation and stopped, but I really thought it was a set up to snatch something. 

    I am also very wary when a TSA agent comments on something in my 3 ounce bag – oh is that hand cream good? – that it is a pickpockets plan to distract and grab something else.

  • lost_in_travel

    Or being added.  Everyone seems to concentrate on the losses and we have heard plenty of stories about one shoe or jeans and sweaters that don’t get back into the bags.  But just as the opportunity exists for removal, so does the chance to add.  As long as the people adding know that the people removing at the other end can grab the bags, it is a perfect transit system. 

    I was asked the old, “Did you pack your bags yourself and have them in your control the whole time?” questions last summer on a connecting flight and answered,”Yes, I packed them and I had them under my control until I checked them in with the airline.”  She either did not catch the real meaning of what I said or chose not to think about it as she waved me on.

  • Who said anything about checked luggage? Another passenger could pick something up from your bag in screening or as you’re sitting there waiting for your flight or even from the overhead bin. Unless it’s an outright theft and you can pinpoint where it happened, I can’t see why someone would appeal to the airlines for help or be upset when they don’t…

  • cjr001

    Why take responsibility – whether it be an airline or TSA – when our government makes it so easy to pass the buck?

    As techno points out, the system ENCOURAGES theft because passengers are separated from their carryons at the security check point. It’s even worse for checked luggage, where any number of people can get their hands on it once you hand it over to the airline.

  • Mark Bushman

    Again, you are dealing w/ people at the GS-5, 7, and 9 levels.  TSA is not getting the best brightest at those rates of pay.  As a result, while probably 95% of them work hard and do the best job they can, the others look to pilfer and swindle whatever they can from passengers because they KNOW they will get away with it.  It’s a nice secondary form of income for them.  If you confront them, suddenly you’re the one in a holding cell, or being molested by an agent…also, good luck catching your flight. Until the DHS can fix this problem, it will only get worse.

  • orsay

     In this article, common sense dictates, that if you left your iPad laying about and it went missing, that you would NOT accuse the TSA! You would KNOW how you lost your item. IF- you left it the tray without monitoring it, you would also know how it was lost. SO…reason follows if you find it missing later.. that you are talking about check baggage after your luggage has left your sight.

    And.. WHY would the TSA not be responsible??

    Here in NYC, these agents are arrested ALL the time for running theft rings out of all of our major airports!
    Why anyone has NOT gotten the message to carry their valuables with them is beyond me. So, I have little pity for their stupidity but that does NOT excuse the TSA!!

  • MarkKelling

    If you leave the checkpoint and forget to pick up your electronics or anything else and they disappear, it might be TSA, it might be another traveler, it could be anyone who ends up with it.  Someone actually took my shoes at IAH!  (Luckily I had a second pair in my carry on.)  However, if the items are in your bag and they disappear between the time you place them on the belt and you pick them up on the other side, it definitely is the TSA.  Who else besides the guy working the x-ray would know what’s in your bag?  And if you check anything like this, well, you should know better.  Theft from checked luggage was a problem long before there was a TSA.

  • StarKiller

    Is it possible to set up tracking on other types of tablets?  

  • JimDavisHouston

    It’s more than just ipads.  Android phones & entertainment electronics will disapppear if not secured.  LOCK YOUR CARRYONS with non TSA locks when going through Security.  If they want to see what else is in my bag, I have to be there to remove the lock.

    Going through Airport Security is like walking through a Monkey Cage with a cupcake.

  • StarKiller
  • tind sow

    lol, the TSA is a joke. Biggest waste of an agency there is. Period.


  • ExplorationTravMag

    While I agree with you they DO distract at times like this, I want to say part of their process now is to engage in idle conversation with people to look for “signs” of certain behaviors.

    I’ve noticed this happening more and more as I travel.  Frankly, I think I prefer it to their usual abrasive behavior.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    While I certainly didn’t appreciate TSA’s flippant response of “…381 TSOs have been terminated for theft, which represents less than 1/2 of one percent (0.4 percent) of officers that have been employed by the agency.”  it could be said, truly, that in a body of persons this large, there are certain to be bad apples.

    However, TSA is also a law enforcement agency (of sorts – let’s not let them be bigger than they really are).  Certainly, their standards need to be higher when it comes to the safety and security of millions of passengers a year.  When the inmates are running the asylum, though, these problems arise.  To shrug them off the way TSA has tells me they don’t care as much as they need to.

    I have no anecdotes related to this but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time, when you consider the amount of travel I do.  I decrease the odds every time I fly.

  • JimDavisHouston

    Hey Chris;
    Why do you refer to them as agents?  They are simply employees.  Some argue that they are Fedral Employees and are therefore Agents / Officers.  Federal Employees??  So is my Mail Man.

  • Charlie Funk

    TSA agents, particularly it seems supervisors, are quite knowledgeable with regard to liquid, gel, and creme container sizes.  As my wife and I came through security at JFK having just cleared customs as we returned from a trip to Europe, a supervisor, from a distance of at least eight feet, saw a container of a cosmetic that costs about $60.00, walked over to the belt and advised the agent at the belt that “this jar is 3.2 ounces and has to be confiscated”.  I’m cynical perhaps, but I am persuaded the contents didn’t wind up in a trash bin somewhere.

  • Chasmosaur

    Never bring an entire bottle of perfume on a plane.  I’m sorry it was stolen, but  possibility of theft aside, if it breaks, your suitcase and its contents might get ruined.

    Look into one of these.


  • Chasmosaur

    Unfortunately, when I’ve done that, I get called for a bag check.  Which results in my possibly losing more than just electronics as they pull items out to be separately screened.

    What I do is bundle all of my small electronics – iPod and cell phone – with their chargers into a clear PVC travel bag.  I put all the small electronics into one bin – the PVC bag, Kindle in its brightly colored case, and throw in my crappy Timex – and then all my other items (shoes, liquids bag, etc.) in a second bin.
    It makes it harder for the small items to go missing, and I no longer get bag searches since they can’t claim a tangle of cords is suspect.  All the consumer electronics are all laid out for them.  And without the necessity of a bag check, they remain out of my control for a shorter period of time.I am so tired of having to pack this way.

  • Daisiemae

    The TSA is responsible for your missing shoes.  They are the ones who forced you to remove them and they are the ones who forced you to be separated from them.

    If TSA is forcing people to be separated from their property, then it is TSA’s responsibility to make certain that same property is safely returned to its owner.

    Not practical, you may say?  Neither is the needle in a haystack approach TSA currently takes to airport security.  The failure to find a single terrorist in 11 years is a testament to TSA’s impracticality.

    Until TSA can figure out a way to safeguard the property it is removing from innocent American citizens, it has no right to separate those citizens from their property.

  • Daisiemae

    Yes, and we know how much those monkeys love cupcakes!

  • What’s even worse, Charlie, is that the TSA screeners were either so miserably stupid or so maliciously kleptomanic that they flat-out lied to you.  TSA’s written rules allow liquids, gels, and aerosols up to 100 milliliters, which is a little over 3.3 oz.   Don’t let these lowlifes bully you out of your valuables again.

  • Screeners is a good way to avoid calling these over-employed lowlifes by words that honor them far too much, like “agent” or “officer”.  They’re screeners.  Some people prefer “clerks”.

  • TSA says its error in trusting the 1/2 of one percent of their workforce that is composed of the kind of criminals who steal, smuggle drugs, or commit even worse crimes is no big deal.

    But the agency owes its whole existence to its supposedly flawless power to detect an event rarer than one in one billion.  If their oh-so-well-trained “behavior detection” squads can’t even locate the unsophisticated thieves and child pornographers among their ranks, why would we think these idiots could detect terrorists?

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    TSA set up a wonderful system so their agents can steal your property.  When they separate you from your baggage, often that’s when it goes missing.  

    They have INCENTIVE to haul you to another room and treat you like trash.  They can check out your stuff and pilfer through what they want.

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    Because the people who RUN that location set it up in such a way so it’s EASY to steal your stuff.   The separate you from your bags, grope your groin, then you return and your iPad is gone.

    So just how is that NOT their responsibility?

    You put your iPad in your luggage…you put locks on it.  TSA unlocks your bag for “inspection”, then your iPad is missing.   Again how is it NOT their responsibility?

    We KNOW TSA hires people to post on blogs, to attack the point of view that they have any responsiblity.  

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    We KNOW they are enriching themselves off the checkpoints.   I had one admit to me as much one time.  

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    Yet, has TSA ever paid out a claim?   Does anyone have that information?

  • y_p_w

    Only a small part of the TSA (the Federal Air Marshal program) is legally considered law enforcement.  The screeners are basically guys in uniform who need to call actual law enforcement (usually airport police) if there’s any actual law enforcement issue.

    Simply wearing a uniform isn’t enough.  The National Park Service had uniformed personnel who aren’t law enforcement, although their actual law enforcement often doesn’t get enough respect because they wear virtually the same uniforms as the non-law enforcement.  I’ve seen a lot of people treat the law enforcement rangers (even though they have guns) as tour guides.

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    If TSA orders your iPad out of the bag, be VERY SUSPICIOUS.   THEIR own rules state it is not required.   Ask the agent if he or she is one of the iPad thieves…in front of witnesses.

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    You know what a GS-5 is?   Just one step above the mailroom employee.   Very low end flunkie.

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    If you locked your luggage, and an airline employee broke off the lock to pilfer your luggage, how is the airline NOT RESPONSIBLE?    

    Their one sided carriage agreement?   That thing should be thrown out, and if properly challenged, it probably would be.   Contracts can’t override negligence.

  • Miami510

    I know people who have lost cashmire scarfs, jewelry, camera, a brand new pair of hearing aids ($4,000) from checked luggage.  Probably the best thing is to lock your carry-on luggage and open it if they want to inspect it… at least you will be they for the inspection. 
    Checked luggage?  Don’t pack anything of “street” value.  One scam, of which I read, involved the X-ray viewer, of checked luggage, putting a chalk mark on the luggage.  A co-conspirator in the baggage handling department would switch baggage tags to divert the bag to another area.
    From there the bag would be opened and valuables perloined. 

  • Nigel Appleby

    Yes on Android OS ones – the app is “where’s my droid” and it’s free

  • Nigel Appleby

    And then there’s the recent incident on an Horizon aircraft. A passenger left an iPad behind, another passenger found it and handed it to the flight attendant. Instead of turning in the iPad the flight attendant took it home. When it was tracked down she said that she forgot to turn it in, but according to the newspapaer article it already had some of her information and her husband’s birthday entered. She has been fired and charged with theft.
    Yes, it was forgetfulness by one person, another doing the right thing but a third being tempted, what a shame.
    Just shows it’s not just TSA when something goes missing during travel.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    But TSA is making us all safer!

    You should be grateful for the inconvenience!

  • TSAisTerrorism

    There are as many employees at WDW in Orlando as in the entire TSA. Some of these employees have unsupervised access to your belongings in your room while you’re away, to your children, and to your car. Having been offered a job there right of college, I can tell you that the pay isn’t near as good as at TSA.

    And yet we don’t have cases of theft, child molestation, or outright rudeness that we have at TSA. Why is that?

  • TSAisTerrorism

    I personally like Airport Security Screeners. I’ll let you guys do the math. ;)

  • Cybrsk8r

    There are APPs that will remotely erase all data on an iPad the instant it connects to the web.  I’d take it a step furthur.  An APP that causes the battery to short circuit and burn.  You whip out your phone, key in a 12 digit security code and POOF your iPad literally explodes.

  • bodega3

    Police officers have been caught stealing drugs that were confiscated.  Teachers have been arrested for molesting children in their care.  Hospital employees have been caught raping patients.  There are journalists that plagiarise and add false information.  There are clerks that take money from the till.  Good gravy people not all TSA employees are out to screw you out of your stuff.

    What I don’t understand is all the scrutiny at TSA check points with camera on passengers but no survallience cameras on our checked luggage despite all the items that are reported stolen from locked bags.  Why is this not corrected?  Why are baggage handlers not watched 24/7? I don’t check anything I care about losing, but I do have a concern of what could be placed in my bag.  This isn’t a concern just here in the US.  I believe it was a flight from Australia that a woman is currently in prison after she claims something  illegal was placed in her bag after she checked it for an international flight.  I understand that as my bag was cut into after checking with with BA in ZRH on our trip back to SFO.  Noting was put in my bag, but brought up my concern that I expressed to the carrier which was never addressed.

  • DavidYoung2

    Umm…. nice story, but not true. Because when I was selected for ‘secondary screening,’ they asked me to grab my belongings from the scanner belt and bring them with me.

    Common sense: Don’t put your valuables through before you walk through the scanner. Because the guy at the other end may grab you laptop or iPad and walk off while you’re stuck behind somebody else. They even work in teams sometimes with the ‘blocker’ digging through his pockets pulling out keys and coins to purposely delay you while his/her partner grabs your computer.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    They sure are good at detecting people with fake ID’s, though, aren’t they?

  • naoma

    TSA stole my beautiful luggage tags. I hope they can use them and that their name is the same as mine.

  • Yes, some people have recovered on their claims. One woman was in the news recently when she recovered $3.99 for a jar of peanut butter confiscated. I remember reading somewhere that the rate of paid claims is very low, something like 10% of claims get paid.

  • DavidYoung2

    You start with, “Part of the problem….” but IS there a TSA problem. Read the story carefully. They used 10 iPads and only one was stolen. First, they purposely left it behind. It wasn’t ‘pilfered’ from a bag – the set up was to intentionally leave it at the screening area to entice someone to take it.

    Now dig deeper into the story. It would seem on the surface that 1 in 10 iPads is a 10% dishonesty rate. But that’s not true. The story insinuates that by saying “we used 10 iPads” but what they don’t say is when they were returned, they used them again… and again … and again. So the same iPad might have been intentionally left 100 times and returned each time.

    Also the story says they left “$500.00 in cash” at various locations. Yet by leaving out any mention of that being taken, one can presume that none of it was lost.

    Granted, even one dishonest person is sad, but ask another question:

    If Joe Passenger found an iPod or $500.00 in cash sitting on a seat by a gate, how many do you think would be turned in? All the cash was turned in, and the vast majority of iPads. I suspect the TSA honesty rate is about 100x that of the average passenger – especially with the $500 in cash that no TSA agent took. None. Nil. We all know that wouldn’t be true of Joe Q Public.

  • Charles B

    And you have literally just earned yourself a federal charge of setting off a bomb in an airport. Have fun with that.

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