TSA Watch: Oh, so this is what they mean by “zero tolerance”

Here are two more reasons you should never check valuables in your luggage when you’re flying: Michael Pujol and his wife, Betsy Pujol Salazar.

The couple was arrested last week and charged with grand theft. Investigators say Pujol, a TSA agent at Miami International Airport, stuffed items from passengers’ luggage inside a hidden pocket in his work jacket.

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The Pujols were caught after a missing iPad was traced to them through a Craigslist transaction. Pujol Salazar admitted that she and her husband had taken items stolen from luggage and sold them online for the last three years.

Back in 2008, when I started reporting about TSA’s little crime epidemic, the agency strongly denounced the actions of its thieving agents, insisting it had “zero tolerance” for their actions.

The thefts “in no way represent the overwhelming majority of hard working officers in airports around the country,” the agency declared on its blog.

Since then, I’ve wondered: What does TSA mean by “zero tolerance”?

I think actions speak louder than words.

Just a few days ago, a screener at LaGuardia Airport was arrested for allegedly swiping a pricey laptop from a college student at a screening area. TSA employee Edwin Rosario, 27, was charged with grand larceny and possession of stolen property for taking a $1,300 computer a passenger had left behind.

A few weeks before, the TSA was accused of taking money out of a Florida couple’s luggage. No arrests have been made yet, and the agency refuses to release security camera footage that could implicate the thief because of “security” concerns. The agency also told the passengers that its screeners “never steal.”

Last month, another TSA worker in Memphis was arrested and charged with theft. Police say Ricky German, 48, tried to swipe a laptop that had been left at his screening station. Surveillance video showed German carrying away the laptop and throwing away papers with the owner’s name on it. After police arrived and said they would view the surveillance video, German then claimed he “found” the laptop.

This fall, a passenger going through security at Phoenix Airport left the screening area $200 lighter. He thinks one of the agents helped himself to his cash when he was checked. Surveillance video didn’t implicate the TSA, but the passenger, Tyson Tibshraeny, is unconvinced. “Where I have a problem is they wanted to separate me from my wallet,” he says.

A few weeks earlier, a TSA agent lost his job and is faced grand theft charges for allegedly pocketing a $450 pen owned by Rick Case, a prominent South Florida car dealership owner. Investigators say Toussain Puddie, 30, admitted to taking Case’s pen after it was left behind during a checkpoint screening at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“Finders keepers doesn’t apply when you are a public servant and have the public’s trust,” a Sheriff Department spokesman said.

It’s easy to see how agents like Puddie might think otherwise. After all, Congress allows the TSA to keep the pocket change air travelers leave behind — why not their pens or laptop computers?

I could go on. There are dozens more documented cases of TSA agents being arrested and charged with theft in 2011, but you get the idea. (And never mind the items that TSA confiscates from us legally, like cosmetics, liquids and other, so-called “prohibited items.”

Bear in mind that these are just the agents that are caught. Chances are, there are many other TSA workers who are getting away with their thieving ways. Pay attention to the reported convictions, too. Even the agents who are caught are often given a slap on the wrist. It might be reasonable to assume that now more than ever, the TSA is afflicted by a theft epidemic.

Is this what “zero tolerance” looks like?

Look, I get it. Insisting the TSA doesn’t tolerate theft makes for a catchy TV sound bite. But if you really think about it, it’s nonsense.

Saying the TSA now has “zero tolerance” for thefts — which it proclaimed back in 2008 — implies that before then, it had some tolerance for it. (Actually, that’s a whole lot closer to the truth; if TSA’s policy were truly “zero tolerance” then it would summarily dismiss any agent who takes a pencil from a desk or “borrows” a pair of those latex gloves they use for patting us down — that’s zero tolerance.)

I think “zero tolerance” might just be empty rhetoric designed to make us think our federal screeners will be held to a higher standard. They’re words that are meant to soothe us, to convince us to stop worrying about our property being spirited away by a screener.

They are words we should question.

Why do the very people who are supposed to be protecting us also steal from us with such frequency? They do it because they can. They do it because, despite what their mouthpieces tell us on the evening news, they know they’ll probably get away with it.

We hear “zero tolerance.” But the TSA workforce hears “zero accountability.”

(Photo: Caryn K./Flickr)

73 thoughts on “TSA Watch: Oh, so this is what they mean by “zero tolerance”

  1. Even the few cases who are brought to trial only get a slap on the wrist. So,what’s the down side? Might as well go for it.

    1. Yeah, but that’s true of any “first offender” for non-violent crime.  Rush Limbaugh got busted for a Class 3 felony for drugs, and got ‘drug diversion’ and probation.  So it’s not the TSA — it’s just in general we don’t want to pay $200,000 to incarcerate somebody for five years for stealing a pen.

  2. Too bad we can’t send the screeners through the screening process on their way to and from work. It would make stealing more difficult. “You didn’t have $200 in cash this morning – where did it come from?”

    1. Love the user name! You’ve either got a great derriere, and an ego to go with it; or a great sense of self-deprecating humor.

    1. So true.  Do you think TSA employees steal more, or are more dishonest than employees in general?  Chris isn’t being reasonable – any organization with 30,000 employees is going to have some people who are dishonest.  To assert that they should have ‘zero’ employees who are dishonest is, well, just plain silly.  Can we deal with the real world instead of the fantasy world?

      1. Sadly, very true.  My sister works for Kroger, and their monthly reports show losses due to breakage/spoilage, vendor theft, customer theft and employee theft.  One guess what the highest cost comes from!

      2. The difference is that while the government doesn’t grab your arms and immobilize you to help the street mugger grab your wallet, the government does force you to leave your bag unlocked when you hand it over to these TSA thieves.  The problem is that the process is set up to victimize travelers.  No savvy traveler lets unlocked bags (or bags to which strangers have the keys) out of his sight.

        Let’s leave aside the fact that the TSA’s expert behavior detection officers have failed to locate the thieves, rapists, and child porn enthusiasts among their employees.  But actually, now that you’ve raised the subject, how exactly is the TSA supposed to detect my intent by reading my mind when they can’t even detect that their own employees have been stealing on the job for years on end?

  3. The TSA is an element of the encroachment of the New World Order that true patriots like Alex Jones on Genesis Radio are warning us about, but too few of us say anything, we are lemmings and patsies, allowing this great nation to become Amerika with a K, ruled by Federal Marshals.

  4. In the area of high security in the intelligence services, agents are routinely given lie detector tests.  It is true that the results of polygraph tests are not admissible in court, but their validity is high enough for it to be an acceptable practice in the intelligence fields.  There is also the deterrent effect of the threat of exposure, which compels some people to do the right thing.
    I suggest that TSA is sufficiently important to national security to require its personnel to be periodically vetted. 

  5. There is a very simple solution to this problem.  Both travelers and the TSA need to ensure that traveler are never visually separated from their belongings.  I travel quite a bit any always make sure that no matter what the TSA says I always keep eyes on my belongings while I comply with their demands.

    1. technomage1, doesn’t matter — the TSA does whatever it wants.  Though I, too, am an experienced traveler, I was separated from my belongings and prevented from watching over them.  Thousands of other people have experienced the same thing.  It’s done deliberately.  It’s punitive.  “You don’t jump high enough every time we tell you to?  Fine.  We can make life difficult for you.”

      This has been attested by so many people it’s barely worth discussing anymore.


      1. I can honestly say I’ve never had them make life difficult for me.  I’ve had them do stupid stuff, or things that I didn’t like (like rifling through some cash I had once), but I was never singled out for poor treatment.  It may be luck, or because I’m in the service, or it may be because I’m always polite, though firm, about it – “Oh, sure thing, I’m just going to grab my bag first, I don’t want someone to walk off with it” tends to get you further than snarling about it – and I’m not saying you did that – but I have seen people jacked up due to their mouths before.  I try not to get upset with the schlep making minimum wage and reserve my wrath for the higher ups if need be. 

        1. And here’s another person telling you that they’ve done it to me as well…twice.  I have never been anything other than civil, and yet I’ve been physically and sexually assaulted by these thugs for no reason other than the fact that, the first time, I was wearing a medical device (a back brace), and the second time, I opted out of the scanner forcing a pissed-off TSO to actually have to work for her minimum wage.  Both times I was horrifically violated.

          As for your comment “I have seen people jacked up due to their mouths before”…are you saying that the TSA targeted someone for abusive treatment as punishment for something they said?  Um…do you by any chance see anything WRONG with this?  Do you think it’s acceptable for the TSA to abuse someone, make their experience more difficult, or in any way “jack them up” simply because they spoke their minds? 

          Perhaps you and I have different definitions of freedom.  But in MY America, government thugs do not have the right to punish innocent people who have committed no crimes, regardless of any words they might use.

          1. You have shared your experience, just as I’ve shared mine.  99% of the time the TSA has been polite to me, even thanking me for my service.  Do I like being searched or scanned?  Heck no, but again I reserve my ire for those in charge, not the peons. 

            The people I’ve seen jacked up due to their mouths – yes, I’d call cussing out someone or yelling at them when they were politely asked to do something a well deserved jacking up.  And that’s what I saw.  Both times I thought the passenger was wrong.  That doesn’t mean the TSA is always right.  But fair is fair, sometimes they get treated poorly too.  The old adage, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar goes both ways.

        2. I’d call rifling through your cash “poor treatment”.  In fact, I’d call being searched and poked and prodded like a maximum security prison inmate when you are an upstanding citizen serving in the armed forces “poor treatment”.  No one deserves a warrantless, suspicionless search, and every time such a search is conducted the victim has been poorly treated.

          1. I agree that rifling through cash in front of the world didn’t make me too happy.  However, having seen what a strip of C4 the size of that wad of cash can do to a vehicle, I understand the need to check even though the search could have been conducted better. Sorry I’m not on the “beat the TSA up” bandwagon.

          2. You say you understand the need to check, which just demonstrates that you understand nothing about quantifiable risk and weakest-link theories of security.  There is absolutely no need and no value in searching you like you’re some kind of criminal just because you’ve bought an airline ticket.  I will fight for your constitutionally guaranteed rights, even though you protest that you’re okay with the TSA’s trampling them. 

            These warrantless searches contribute precisely zero to anyone’s security. You’re 200 times more likely to drown in your own bathtub than to ever be involved in a terrorist incident in the United States, and you wouldn’t invite the TSA to supervise your bathing activities, would you?  Well, maybe you would. 

            Read a bit of Bruce Schneier: tactics and targets are innumerable, and locking down a handful of particular tactics and targets is senseless and can not possibly present an obstacle to mayhem. Fortunately, our country is not crawling with terrorists. There are no terrorists under your bed, however the government tries to convince you to be afraid of finding one there. If the country were at risk from huge numbers of determined terrorists, nothing the hapless Keystone Kops at TSA could do would even slow them down.

          3. Actually, since he said he served in the military, I think he understands risks and risk assessment better than you give him credit for.  Not everyone has to rant and rave to get their point across, you know.

          4. I don’t see any ranting any raving from Sommer.

            But I do see plenty of posts like yours that seem to apologize for anything and everything TSA does.

          5. I meant HE didn’t have to rant or rave to get his message across.  And NO, I certinaly do NOT apologize for the TSA, they are the bain of my existance as a travel agent and frequent traveller.  I was just stating that HE has a right to state his, and it seems on THIS site, only those who bash the TSA are acceptable – this gentlman said he has had no problems, and I believe him (and wish him well in the future)

          6. I’ve never had any real run-ins with TSA either.

            But that doesn’t mean I’m going to wait until I do before speaking out against TSA.

    2. Easier said than done.   I fly out of San Juan several times a year and the times I’ve been directed to the full body scanner my carry on has gone through the x-ray faster and ended up sitting at the end of the x-ray track while I’m still waiting to be scanned (out of eye sight from my carry on).  Once as I was just coming out of the scanner I was told by a TSA agent to wait and while waiting I saw another passenger pick up my netbook from the x-ray bin and start to walk away.  I yelled out that he was taking my netbook (drawing the attention of the TSA next to me and others to the passenger)  and the passenger dropped my netbook back into the bin and hurried off.  A few seconds later and my netbook would have been gone. 

      As for your other comments:  “I’m always polite, though firm, about it” and “but I have seen people jacked up due to their mouths
      before.”  You should realize that your “firm” response may be interpreted as resistance or even smart mouth so you too could be jacked up due to your mouth. 

      1. Lets start with the illegal immigrant who is pretending to be our president. Then move on to the rest of the democrats, eventually banning them from America, and making America strong again.

        1. Ah, a real live birther.  I thought you guys all crawled back under the rocks from whence you came after you were publicly humiliated and thoroughly debunked with facts.  Y’know, “facts”?  (Oh…right…you’re a birther, you don’t know what those are…)


        2. Because invading Iraq made America oh so strong under the last Republican we were foolish enough to allow to become President…

  6. if they had zero tolerance, then their outfits wouldn’t have pockets…

    Also as for revenge, I refuse to go through the radiation machines and they had closed of the normal ones at T8 JFK last night

    Needless to say I unloaded my stuff into the machine (cpap, laptops, bags) and then indicated my refusal to the TSA employee (who had to be told twice(!))

    The search wasn’t too bad – quite fast actually – what slowed everything down was the time it took for the radiation machines to scan people!

    no revenge tactics by the TSA for me (this time(!))

    1. Agree with the pockets comment.  Many years ago I worked for a department store, and we were required to carry a clear plastic “purse” when at work.  That ensured we never stole from either the company OR the clients.

  7. Why is this a TSA story?  Any government employee takes the same liberties.  That’s why no cop has ever received a speeding ticket.

    1. Because a criminal with no scruples who has access to take valuables out of your luggage is a criminal with no scruples who can be bribed to put dangerous items into your luggage.  The never-ending parade of TSA thieves, child pornographers, and rapists caught taking advantage of travelers negates the whole premise of the TSA.  We’re not safer now that we’ve set aside little rooms for criminals to tamper with our luggage.  We’re less safe.

    2. “No cop has ever received a speeding ticket”?!  I take it you’re not from DC!  One year back in the 1980’s (I think) the city was handed some extra federal money–like it doesn’t get enough already? but I digress–and they quickly hired a slew of additional police officers.  In their rush, they relaxed the hiring standards.  The following years saw one after the other of that year’s police-academy graduating class arrested for dealing cocaine and every imaginable crime associated with drug-dealers, not to mention countless instances of abuse of authority… a huge number of cops went to prison, which is exactly what they deserved.  A tad worse than a speeding ticket…

      Speaking of DC, I once met a real loser, a former federal employee who had actually been fired–for stealing a computer from a govt office.  Think nobody ever loses his job in the federal govt?  Guess again.

      “Any government employee takes the same liberties”?  What are YOU smoking?!  As a former fed officer myself (desk job), let me point out that while stealing from the govt would be bad enough, stealing from a fellow employee or from the public takes it to a whole new level.  If bureaucrat A steals personal property from bureaucrat B, B doesn’t just call personnel… he also calls the local police and it becomes a criminal matter.  How often does this happen in the govt outside of the TSA?  I certainly am not suggesting that all  employees of other branches of the US govt are pure as the driven snow, but they SURE don’t commit grand larceny against the general public on anywhere near the scale of the TSA as Chris has documented here!

  8. Isn’t the solution to this problem obvious?  They need to move the body-scanner machines to the checked-baggage areas and scan the tar out of the TSA workers who have unrestricted access to our valuables.  I’d say scan them on the way in and on the way out, and permit no items at all to enter or leave the room in the possession of the TSA workers.  Problem solved. And it would be the first time that a body scanner had ever been put to a useful purpose.

    1. i have no problem with TSA being forced to go through scanners before & after. but NO items at all? no cell phones? no water bottles?

      1. Do it like the Mint at West Point (where they make the gold and platinum coins) — you show what you have when you go in, they list it, and you can’t have anything more with you when you leave.  Easy enough.

      2. They can leave the baggage areas to use their phones or take snack breaks.  And it’s fairly ironic that you’re defending their right to have water – after they’ve confiscated millions of our water bottles!  No water for me, no water for them.

        1. you can have water! i always bring my own empty bottle and fill it up there. [for the record, i believe their liquid ban is ridiculous]

          i think they’d–ironically–throw a fit and cry out about their civil liberties if you denied them having access to water at all times while in their workstation.

  9. @Christopher Elliott:  How do links to other stories get selected for the “You might like” section immediately before the Tags and Comments?  “4 Tips That Can Help You Join The Mile High Club” by “MadeMan is just absolutely repulsive when thinking about the TSA.  I mean ewwwww

      1. Agreed.  Never noticed the ? before.  A whole new round of links popped up this time.  At least this time one of the links was about how to complain about the TSA, which actually is related to the article.  However, someone is setting the parameters for the linking, so maybe the editor of this site should do a little tweaking.

  10. I’ve never had anything stolen by a TSA agent (knock on wood) and I hope I never do, because I won’t just file the claim and wait for the TSA to deny it.  I will find out where that agent lives.  I will show up at his house at 10pm and then he’ll have to deal with me.  And he will never be as sorry as he’ll be when I get done with him.

  11. i hardly think a handful of anecdotes indicates an “epidemic”.

    that said, it’s reprehensible for these folks to be taking ANYTHING that doesn’t belong to them. it’s also sad that this happens in every way of life, there are always bad apples. and i don’t think ANY business — government or otherwise — should employ someone they have proof is stealing (and you know with security, they have surveillance to prove it). i once had a supervisor who helped herself to the store’s Lost & Found. yes, she was fired! and rightfully so!

    1. A handful of anecdotes (every week) adds up to more than 600 dismissed screeners who have been caught stealing, running drugs, possessing child porn, et cetera – and those are just the ones who have been caught.

      The reason this demands more attention than any run-of-the-mill mugging is that the government helped these particular thieves have unfettered access to the belongings of others.  Prudent travelers used to lock their bags to prevent theft – but now all of these thefts are aided and abetted by TSA policies.  This isn’t about a bad apple, this is about the TSA’s pathetically broken system which makes travelers into sitting ducks for theft and sexual exploitation. We are all distinctly less safe than we used to be when we fly.

  12. Excellent article highlighting the ongoing crimes of the TSA.  These stories need to get WAY more press than they are getting.  The American traveling public is at the mercy of government thugs who are given license to abuse and steal with impunity, and most of the public wrongly believes that this is the price of safety from terrorism.

    One missing piece from this article:  while it’s important to bring to light the out-and-out thefts perpetrated by TSA employees, what about all of the perfectly harmless items that are routinely confiscated by TSOs at checkpoints?  Technician’s tools, antiques, family heirlooms, cosmetics, expensive wines and liquors – anything that TSOs decide are “prohibited” – millions of these items are taken by the TSA every year.  None of them would ever have been used to take down a plane…not one.  So what happens to them?  I guarantee they are not thrown away.  Somebody is enjoying that stolen bottle of Cognac…somebody is gifting their child with that swiped Swiss Army knife…somebody is padding their pockets with the proceeds from selling that specialized technical tool.

    I once had an EYELASH CURLER confiscated at the checkpoint at LAX.  It was brand new and still in its plastic packaging – I’d picked it up at a shop in the airport outside of the secure area.  I have no doubt some TSO sported lovely curled eyelashes at some point shortly thereafter.  I still wonder what they thought I could have done with it…run up to the pilot and scream “Take me to Havana or I’ll make you byooteeful!”?

    What’s so funny about all of these confiscations is that these items are apparently too dangerous for us to carry them onboard a plane…but not so dangerous that they won’t be purloined for the personal use or enrichment of TSOs.

  13. Chris, you forgot the one where 2 TSA agents at JFK were arrested for stealing $40k out of a checked bag at a date and time not being revealed to the public because they took it from a case containing $125k that is expected to have been a shipment of drug money.  But this is what happens when you hire people not trained or licensed as security guards to do the job of a security guard.

  14. I can’t summon sympathy for anyone stupid enough to leave valuables behind at a TSA checkpoint. And, Chris, they are not so-called “prohibited items”; they ARE “prohibited items,” and anyone stupid enough to put them their carry-on deserves to have them confiscated. Once again, you allow your virulent anti-TSA bias to overshadow a worthwhile message: Don’t put valuables in your checked luggage, and don’t leave them behind at Security.

    1. So what do you suggest we DO with our valuables when we need to transport them?  How SHALL I take my jewelry, my family heirlooms, my antiques that I want to bring with me? I’m not allowed to carry on the ones with sharp edges – apparently the government thinks I would try to take down the plane with it.  I can’t put it in my checked luggage, because the government apparently hires thieves, and it’s MY responsibility to not tempt them. 

      What about when I move?  I don’t want to put my valuables on the moving van so they’ll be out on the highways out of my care for days or weeks, I want to take them with me.  But I can’t carry them on (might get swiped out of my bag at the checkpoint while I’m being groped), can’t check them (because it’s apparently my fault if they get stolen because I tempted the government thieves).

      Yeah, lotsa logic there, Paulette.

      1. I would suggest that it would be possible to have them shipped to your destination via insured/bonded package delivery.

        If you’re really worried about it, there are ways.  Museums, auctioneers, and antique dealers manage to find ways to transport extremely valuable items across the country. I really doubt it’s via normal check-in. I think some items (together) are so valuable that sometime there are chartered flights to transport them, where one doesn’t have to deal with the TSA when it’s general aviation.

        Remember Toy Story 2, where some toy store owner/dealer is trying to transport some super-valuable toys to Japan, but checks them in, telling the airline employee that “This is worth more than you make in a year”?  I don’t know anyone who would be stupid enough to tip off anyone to the value of the contents of luggage.  For that matter, I can’t fathom how anyone would ever think of checking in Louis Vuitton luggage.  It would say, “I’ve probably got something worth stealing” as well as myself being worried that luggage costing that much could be damaged.

        1. Or how about this idea:  our government stops hiring criminals and thieves to rifle through our belongings and take whatever they feel like taking?  Oh wait…that’s just too logical…

          1. I’m with you there, Lee Ann! It used to be that you didn’t place any valuables in your checked luggage….it would probably be stolen. You kept them with you in your carry on.

            But now that TSA separates you from your possessions while they are screening (molesting) you, these thieves can help themselves to anything they want, knowing there are absolutely no consequences if they are caught.

            It’s impossible to travel without some valuables…at the very least your wallet with cash, credit cards, and identification.

            I think pauletteb is way out of line to call people stupid who lose things at the checkpoint. People in uniforms are screaming at you, they separate you from your belongings, they put you in an X-ray machine and you’re worried about radiation and wondering who is looking at your naked body, they sexually molest and assault you, they intimidate and terrorize you, you’re worried if you’ll make your flight and wondering what you will do if you don’t make it, the TSA is rifling through your belongings and stealing whatever they want……and in the midst of ALL this, you’re “STUPID” if something gets left behind? Maybe you should rethink that, pauletteb.

  15. While they did not deserve their costly items to be stolen by crooks with a paycheck, they should have known better in that you keep valuables and medications WITH you.

    1. Unfortunately that doesn’t work either, and here’s why:

      1. The airlines now limit your carry-ons to the point where you may not have room for your valuables, especially if you need to carry things for medical needs (e.g. CPAP).

      2. What if your valuables would be deemed “prohibited” by the TSA?  Anything with a sharp edge is in jeopardy of confiscation.  Jewelry in the shape of weapons has been known to be to be swiped.  Heck, a girls’ WALLET with a leather-embossed shape of a gun on it was taken!

      3. Even if your valuables fit in your carry-on and aren’t confiscated for being prohibited, passengers are often separated from their carry-ons while they are being groped, leaving their valuables unprotected from sticky-fingered TSOs.  There are numerous reports of valuables stolen from carry-ons at the checkpoints – watches, wallets, laptops, cash. 

      Bottom line:  there is NO sure way to protect yourself from theft by thieving TSOs. None.

  16. The TSA agents in Row 8 (or Row 1) stole my prescription codeine cough syrup and zip loc travel items at Logan International on 12/30/11 between 6 and 7 am.  And even though I called the voicemail at Logan several times and left messages, no one ever returned my call or returned my items.

    1. Theft of controlled substances, of which prescription medication often applies, tends to carry heavier penalties.

      The fact that your attempts to contact have been ignored should mean that those responsible for responding to said voicemails should be held equally responsible.

  17.  I, as well as several others that I know have had items stolen from our bags during so called TSA security checks. Unfortunately its not surprising when you have that many different people randomly going through our bags that items turn up missing. Its like they have unabated free ride to go through any bag they want to and no way of proving that they stole an item when it turns up missing. Its a shame that the people who are hired to protect us are stealing us blind.

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