Is the TSA coming for your iPad?

Well, at least they have good taste in tablets. / Photo by the D34N - Flickr
It happened again last week: A TSA agent was formally charged with swiping yet another iPad from a passenger.

Or iPads, in Clayton Keith Dovel’s case.

Dovel, an airport screener at the busy DFW airport, was arrested in February and indicted last week in the theft of multiple Apple iPads from luggage over eight months, according to reports.

He’s hardly the first TSA agent accused of stealing iPads. In fact, TSA agents seem to have a thing for Apple’s popular tablet computers. And with the release of the iPad 3 last month, I thought it might be helpful to review the most recent iPad-snatchings and what they mean for airport security.

The Dovel case is fascinating. Earlier this year, a passenger reported his iPad 2 had been stolen and that he’d traced it electronically to a home in Bedford, Tex., owned by Dovel. Airport police discovered another iPad in Dovel’s leather satchel. He told authorities that the iPad was his but that he couldn’t remember where he bought it, according to police.

A total of eight stolen iPads were recovered.

His indictment, issued last week in Tarrant County, charges Dovel with theft by a public servant. He faces two to 10 years in prison.

Memo to thieving TSA agents: those fancy iPads can be traced right back to your residence.

Maybe Michael Pujol missed that memo, although he’s accused of doing something even dumber than Dovel: He tried to sell his hot iPads on Craigslist.

Pujol, a screener at Miami International Airport, was arrested in January after investigators discovered he stuffed goods from passengers’ luggage inside a hidden pocket in his work jacket.

Related story:   Full text of SD 1544-09-06 authorizing pat-downs, physical inspections

His wife, Betsy Pujol Salazar, reportedly admitted that she and her husband had taken items stolen from luggage and sold them on Craigslist for the last three years.

Interestingly, another iPad-snatcher had been caught only a few months earlier in nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport under similar circumstances. Police there arrested TSA screener Nelson Santiago after an airline employee allegedly caught him slipping an iPad out of a suitcase into his pants.

Authorities discovered a sophisticated operation. Santiago allegedly stole the iPads, took a photo with his cell phone, posted it to Craigslist and would have it sold by the time his shift ended. He was accused of taking up to $50,000 in electronics.

Do they offer a class on supplementing your salary by selling stolen goods as part of your TSA training?

Sometimes, other law enforcement officials join in. Here’s an off-duty police officer who also decided to help himself to an iPad at an airport screening area last year. He was caught within minutes.

Why iPads?

Well, they’re the perfect item to plunder. They’re relatively compact, they’re sought-after and there’s a robust, no-questions-asked market for used iPads online. Oh, and they’re pretty easy to steal. Since TSA doesn’t require them to be removed during screening, passengers often pack them away in their carry-on bag and forget them.

Protecting your iPad is easy. Carry it with you on the plane (it makes a great in-flight entertainment device) and keep a close eye on your bag when it’s being screened. A vast majority of iPads are stolen from checked luggage. Also, secure the content on your tablet with a password and make sure you have tracking enabled so that you can find the iPad if it’s stolen.

Related story:   Does the TSA really care about your customer experience? Read this before you answer

But this string of tablet-swiping makes me wonder about TSA agents in general, and specifically the ones who were stupid enough to get caught. Here’s an agency that likes to think of itself as our last line of defense against terrorism. Its agents are briefed every day on sensitive security information, which, we’re told, is so secret that it can’t even be put on paper.

And yet these agents aren’t smart enough to know that iPads can be tracked electronically?

I think these iPad thefts may say more about the agency than they do about the thieving TSA agents who have been caught. How could their employers entrust such “important” secrets to these criminals? How could the agents make it past the first level of employment screening?

The iPad thefts suggest the TSA has bigger problems than a few thieves in its ranks. It gives the TSA’s critics every reason to believe the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems isn’t up to the job.

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 Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • EvilEmpryss

    The only flaw in the employment screening issue is that some of the thieving individuals may not have had criminal records prior to getting caught stealing while working for TSA.  They may well have been lifelong petty crooks, but if they were never caught and had no criminal records, the agency can’t be blamed for not knowing.  With the temptation of easy access and the sense of untouchable power that being part of the intimidating agency apparently gives some of these workers, it’s also possible that these crooks started their criminal careers while in the TSA.

    On the other hand, I would very much like to know if they *did* have prior records.  If they did, then it’s all on the TSA.

    Since the whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing is already beaten up enough, in this case I’ll reserve my judgment of the TSA until someone can prove the agency knew they were hiring criminals.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Well, the TSA hired Bryant Livingston and promoted him to Transportation Security Manager even though he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in 1999.  In March 2012 Livingston was arrested again, this time for five charges related to a prostitution ring he was allegedly running out of a Silver Spring hotel room.  The TSA was repeatedly advised that Livingston was involved in prostitution, from at least 2009, yet let him continue to abuse the public with his misplaced authority. 

  • Miami510

    Elliott wrote: “Carry it with you on the plane (it makes a great in-flight entertainment device) and keep a close eye on your bag when it’s being screened. A vast majority of iPads are stolen from checked luggage.”
    I found this an interesting warning, sad, and disconcerting. 
    I’m not naïve and realize there have been cases of crooked cops, judges and politicians, but as with these cases, TSA agents have violated a public trust.  Their criminality deserves a greater punishment than a common criminal stealing the same item.  If a common criminal gets 10 years, someone what has been given the public’s trust and violates that should get double the sentence.
    TSA agents are well paid compared with the educational and experience counterparts in private employment.  Why not make their agreement to undergo a periodic (let’s say every six months) lie detector examination a requisite for employment?
    After the usual questions to establish normalcy, only one or two questions should be asked and they be very specific:  Have you in the past six months stolen anything of value from passengers or have you helped someone else to steal?
    If any prospective employee feels this is some invasion of their privacy, let them not apply.  This recommendation is not a fishing expedition, but a test of an individual about a specific, important, job related subject

  • Sadie_Cee

    iPad thefts are only the tip of the iceberg.  Light-fingered agents have a golden opportunity to steal whatever valuables they fancy, most often cash, jewelry or other mobile devices.
    Without hard data to support, based on common sense I would venture to make the claim that on a daily basis thousands of incidents of property loss due to theft by agents go unreported. With the screening process separating PAX from their belongings for periods of time and with them frantically rushing to make flights on time, especially connecting flights, losses are not noticed until it is too late to be certain where and when they occurred.
    This is an area in which it is vital for the TSA take steps to improve its credibility. They need to:
    * Raise the bar regarding all qualification requirements for these positions.
    * Provide high caliber training programs and have long probationary periods. 
    *Place agents on duty under surveillance 100% of the time and inform them that they are being observed.
    *Achieve a far more streamlined process in the security area. The existing level of confusion creates the perfect milieu for thievery to go on.
    BTW who makes restitution to PAX in cases where agents are convicted of theft of their property?

  • EvilEmpryss

    Thank you, Sommer Gentry, I didn’t know about him.   You’d think that at the highest levels they’d have the best screening.  That, or they figured that running the TSA was like running a prostitution ring: you’ve got sole control over the services that your clients wants and they’re paying you to get f***ed.

    Still, a breakdown in the screening process (not catching people with criminal backgrounds during the hiring process) and hiring people who only get caught once they start working are two different things.  A process breakdown needs to be addressed.  Not much can be done for the other situation except constant internal policing to stop it once it starts.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Recurrent lie detector tests?  Isn’t TSA wasting enough of our money already? 

    Decent security systems in the luggage areas with regular screening of the videos for criminal activity (more than just thefts) would be a more efficient and effective use of money than screening every single employee every six months. 

  • dave3029

    I really don’t understand how these people are getting employed by the TSA.  I applied many years ago and never made it through.  I’m an honorably discharged Army vet, no criminal history at all, over 20 years volunteering with youth organizations, sailed through the background check and the in-person test, and I didn’t get hired.    How are these thieves getting through?

  • EvilEmpryss

    You were an overqualified troublemaker.  You might have actually been able to tell the difference between the criminal trying to get on the plane and the one searching the luggage.

    /end sarcasm from an AF vet  ;-)

  • Elmo Clarity

    You were over qualified.  :)

  • SoBeSparky

    And 11 Secret Service (perhaps the most elite U.S. lawmen) were allegedly bedding prossies in Cartegena.  And a Miami-Dade police officer allegedly was escorting the transportation of what he thought were several kg of cocaine for drug runners.  

    A former Miami assistant fire chief kept her $167,000 annual municipal pension after being sentenced for participating in a multi-million-dollar mortgage fraud scheme.

    And on and on.  Come on.  Open the newspaper or open the websites and read the reality of public safety personnel.  There are dirty guys and gals everywhere.  Not right, but there are far more egregious examples than a few iPads.

  • FrankPalmer

    Simple solution.  Use those body imaging machines and scan all TSA employees going out of secured areas.  They say the machines are safe so lets use them to stop theft.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Wishing I could like these replies more than once.  It would seem being honorably discharged and a lack of a criminal record makes you a less than optimal choice.

    Honor seems to be what is lacking most in TSA and it sounds as though you have it, in spades.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I read about this news story yesterday and just shook my head.  For someone to 

    a.) Put an expensive piece of electronics in their checked bag is beyond my level of comprehension; especially a coveted piece of electronics such as the iPad.
    b.) For someone in a position of authority and trust to do this, where cameras are everywhere, is also beyond my level of comprehension.  For TSA to allow this guy to go on working for them (and stealing more iPads) for three years AFTER being told there was a problem – well, I understand that completely.  This IS a bureaucracy, after all.

    And to answer someone’s question about who is responsible for replacing stolen items?  After having some items stolen out of my checked bag once (oddly, it was my underclothes and a pair of jeans) and spending way too much time on trying to answer that very question myself, it would seem the correct answer is, “No one.”

    The airline tells you it’s the responsibility of the airport.  The airport tells you it’s the responsibility of TSA, who searches the checked bags.  The TSA doesn’t tell you anything at all and ignores you entirely.  

    I would say if one were to lose an iPad, well, so sorry, my friend but you’re out of luck and I hope you have good homeowner’s or renter’s insurance with a low deductible because that’s the only way you’ll ever get that iPad replaced.

  • jim6555

    Back around 2003 when the TSA began hiring their initial employees, there were rumors in the Tampa Bay area that the best way to get a TSA job was to contact a Congressman or some other person who had influence within the Bush Administration. I only knew one person who was hired by the TSA at that time and don’t know whether he used influence to get the job. I do know that many people, like me, considered him to be “sleazy” and I often wondered whether he had a criminal record.. 

  • cjr001

    “and keep a close eye on your bag when it’s being screened.”

    Except TSA is also doing their best to separate you from your bags when you’re being screened.

    How many stories have we heard about people who are flagged for groping? They’re not allowed to touch their belongings, and they’re often out of sight of them for who knows how long.

  • cjr001

    “You’d think that at the highest levels they’d have the best screening.”

    This is an agency that advertises on pizza boxes, where they deal in security theater and treat airports like miniature fiefdoms. Where every traveler is treated as a terrorist waiting to happen.

    Where the employees think they’re some sort of world police, yet they get a handful of hours of training before being unleashed on the world.

    You give them far, far more credit than they deserve.

  • jim6555

    After fourteen straight days of going through the scanners, the TSA employees will begin to glow in the dark. After 3 months of scanning, the employees will be using a lot of sick days either to see their oncologists or because they are experiencing the effects of chemotherapy.

  • cjr001

    As a travel advocate, Christopher’s job doesn’t entail following what the Secret Service does, or a Miami fire chief, or Miami police… unless it specifically relates to the travel industry.

    TSA is an $8 billion/year joke.

  • These are only the thefts we find out about. Logic dictates that much more stuff is being stolen and the TSA is getting away with it.

    Someone asked about reimbursement. Since the TSA denies most of the claims it receives (when people even bother to make a claim, more often surmising that it’s a waste of time), here’s what happens:

  • dave3029, sounds like you were too honest and competent. Not TSA material.

  • Sadie_Cee, meant to reply here; see my answer about reimbursement above.

  • Daizymae

    So, we should ignore TSAs criminal behavior simply because other people are doing it?

    Perhaps criminal defense attorneys should make note of this defense and use it in defense of their clients.

    However, I don’t think it will be very effective unless their clients are TSA employees.

  • flutiefan

    we’ve been having more and more incidents of missing ipads from luggage on passengers’ inbound flights lately, from multiple originating airports. and of course they blame airline employees—not even realizing how the TSA has totally unwatched access to their checked bags.
    if i saw one of our own guys swiping anything from a bag (not like they really have time, but i’m sure it’s happened somewhere), i would raise hell.

  • flutiefan

    “So, we should ignore TSAs criminal behavior simply because other people are doing it?”
    that’s not what SoBeSparky said AT ALL. reading is fundamental.

  • judyserienagy

    We’re from the federal government.  We’re here to help you.  We’re here to keep you safe.  Ugh!  I’m sure 95% of the agents are fine upstanding citizens but I’m equally sure that the system to put these people in the field is flawed all the way around and the bad guys can take easy advantage of it.  America was founded on values, morals, ethics.  Our system still works in that mode, but our citizens don’t.  So we’re easy prey and things will continue to escalate until we get over our politically-correct behaviour.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Let’s not miss the point of Chris’s article.  He’s saying that if TSA employees are so ill-informed and dull-witted that they don’t realize ipads have tracking devices that can lead the police right to the person who steals one, then those employees are too ill-informed and dull-witted to provide effective security.   Surely someone whose career involves checking out the contents of electronic devices to identify what’s inside the case should know when there’s a tracking device in the case, right?  But, as ever, criminals are the stupidest element of society, and apparently, TSA employees are too.

  • Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    On a lighter note, perhaps they swipe them to give to their parents.  As this video shows, this generous gesture will most likely make it impossible to trace.

  • Sadie_Cee

    Lisa, thanks for bringing this article to my attention.  What a disgrace!  What a farce!  
    IMO the TSA administration is allowing the thievery to continue by not supervising its agents properly.  The chaos at security checkpoints indicates that there is no streamlined process.   Zero tolerance…how will it help pax who lose their property and have their claims denied?  If the claim is denied, the TSA is saying neither they nor their agents are responsible for the missing items.  Therefore, since no one is culpable, no one loses a job. 
    The entire process is set up to work against the traveling public and it is so distasteful that it is hard to understand why we continue to travel by air.

  • Extramail

    The only problem with that idea is that the criminal groping of passengers would be on tape and could be used against not only the TSA employee but also the TSA agency. There is a reason the TSA tries to tell you it’s illegal to film in the screening area . . . And, isn’t it sad that the only comment my aughter had about flying when we went for our once a year trip was, ” wonder if I’ll get groped today?”

  • Extramail

    And, that is going to cost an additional how much wasted taxpayers’ money? Why don’t we just do away with the entire agency and put that money towards lowering the cost of flying because I trust my fellow passenger to protect me on my flight far more than I will ever trust the TSA!

  • Extramail

    Great idea!

  • Sadie_Cee

    I could have been the person who asked about restitution.  I put the question in the context of the agent who has been convicted of the theft of property. Lisa Simeone has posted a link to a pertinent article.  Looks like the TSA has some sort of reimbursement program (they paid out almost $600,000 in claims in 2010) but are said to deny more claims than they allow.   Hence, in these cases at least we see that the taxpayer is the one who gets stuck.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I’ll look for that article link on here – thanks for letting me know – because my experience isn’t necessarily what another might go through.

  • We have some people, not all, who cannot gain a security clearance and who would have a hard time obtaining work in any job in the government requiring access to classified info handling National Security first response. Until steps are made to hire qualified, competent professionals at a competitive wage we will be subjected to pat downs by ex McDonalds employees.

  • But if we don’t let our iPads get stolen, the terrorists win.

  • Joe Farrell

    The TSA said:

    “The unacceptable behavior of this individual in no way reflects the dedication of our nearly 50,000 transportation security officers who work tirelessly to keep our skies safe,” TSA said in a statement.

    Shouldn’t that be down to about 49,600 by now?  They have arrested literally hundreds of TSA employees over the years for theft and drugs  . . .

  • Susakajo

    Why on earth would anyone put an iPad or computer in checked luggage anyway?

  • canadeeana

    not only should we worry about tsa agent/thieves, but i have a friend who dates a airline/ airplane cleaner and he has helped himself to many, many kindles (3 that i know of), ipods (all flavors / colors) and has been doing it for about 5 years ….. i asked him how he can have so many, and here is his reply, *well, people leave them on the plane, *i* (he) turns them into his supervisor and in 5 days, if not claimed, the object is mine!!!* yea, for real that’s what he said … i was shocked …. he said, *people NEVER call and check if we have them, so i get to take them home*!!!


  • TonyA_says

    Must read article about TSA, today at Wall Street Journal.

    Why Airport Security Is Broken— And How To Fix It

    Air travel would be safer if we allowed knives,
    lighters and liquids and focused on disrupting new terror plots. A
    former head of the Transportation Security Administration, Kip Hawley,
    on embracing risk.

  • Daisiemae

    I totally agree.  If one of these dimwits ever did find a bomb, what on earth would they do about it?  If they are so stupid they don’t know ipads have tracking devices, how could they even recognize a bomb in the first place?

  • TonyA, yes, but funny how former TSA flack Kip Hawley suddenly had an epiphany after he got his a** handed to him by Bruce Schneier at The Economist, where he repeated the same tired arguments and lies he used to spew when he was at the TSA, and now that he has a book to sell.

    Sorry if I don’t buy his change of heart.

  • Susakajo, because TSA clerks steal so many of them from carry-ons at the checkpoint.

  • Sommer Gentry

     Please read my extended response to Hawley’s editorial, particularly his terrible suggestion that airport security should be randomized, here:

  • Jenni Finkelstein


  • Joe_D_Messina

    Let’s see…I’ve got a lightweight and portable item that I could easily carry onto the plane and use for entertainment purposes during the flight. It’s also breakable.  Yep, good call… I’ll stick it in my checked luggage and hope the screen doesn’t get cracked when my bag ends up underneath 200 other bags.

  • bc

    I’ve been saying this for months, the baggage handling area should be a sterile area just like the airport terminals. Zero personal items beyond the check point and when leaving the checkpoint they should have zero personal items. Plain and simple. 

  • Drontil

    TSA screeners don’t have any security clearance at all.

  • Campbell300

    first let us screen the TSA Employees so that we can  reduce the theft of laptops,small pcs etc……..

    Cheap Stockholm Flights

  • pauletteb

    Who these days is stupid enough to put anything of value in their checked luggage? Obviously, a lot of people.

  • Difdi

    There’s this trick to use when flying with valuables.  Buy a starter pistol, and check it in the manner required for a firearm.  By law, the TSA cannot have access to the contents except at a screening (the case is locked with a non-TSA lock, and the key stays with the owner) and then, most airports do the screening in view of the owner.  Even the ones that don’t screen it in front of the owner, it’s easy to check right after to see if anything was stolen.
    Nothing in the law says ONLY the gun and ammunition can go in the case, so it makes an awesome way to securely transport valuables like an iPad or jewelry.

    If a normal suitcase is broken into, it’s a low priority investigation by the airline and airport security. If a locked gun case is broken into, it’s investigated by the FBI and Homeland Security, with the same rigor as what follows a discovery that someone smuggled a gun on board a plane. They WILL find the culprit. And they surgically remove such agents’ senses of humor about such things.

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