As a younger man, I worked for a NASA contractor in Houston. My team worked specifically for the Space Shuttle Program Office at the Johnson Space Center. It always used to amaze me that when we had a “Top Secret” mission scheduled for the Department of Defense, the government would always announce it to the world. “Hello everyone, we have a Top Secret mission here… Yep, Top Secret! Nobody come and ask us what the payload is, nope, we won’t tell you because we have a Top Secret mission here. We can’t tell you that it’s scheduled to launch sometime this Saturday, nope, can’t be specific about anything that has to do with the Top Secret mission!” They even held press conferences to talk about what they couldn’t talk about.
It seemed to me that all they did was draw a ton of attention to the very thing they wanted to shield and protect. Any decent thief would tell you that the secret to stealth is to act as normal and as non-descript as possible. Learning to “hide in plane sight” is a difficult trick to learn for some people.
It’s not a hard thing for some of the more nefarious homeless folks around the Atlanta airport to do, though. The international airport in Atlanta has the dubious distinction of being number one when it comes to luggage theft. On average, eight people per month are arrested (which means there are probably about twenty people every month who get away with it).
The authorities said, “These people dress like passengers and pretend to wait for luggage, then they’ll pick up a bag that came in on an earlier flight and just walk out the door with it.” Personally, I’m always amazed at the amount and the caliber of the luggage that is in the “wait pile” for people to claim. I saw a PGA golf bag once (The Ping brand, I believe) that had to be worth several thousand dollars, just sitting in the corner of the luggage claim area at the Orlando airport. I couldn’t imagine just leaving it there if I had any control over the process.
So, how do you protect yourself? There are a number of things you can do:
- Ship anything of serious value via UPS or FedEx before you leave.
- Put a big bright strap or sash around your checked bag, the more obnoxious and “noticeable” the better. I know one person who actually spray-painted his name on his checkable bags.
- Be mindful when you fly standby. Remember, your luggage will make the flight even if you don’t, so you might create a situation where your luggage just sits in the claim area, unattended, for several hours.
- Use a TSA approved lock. If your bag is even slightly more difficult for a thief to deal with, then they’ll look for an easier mark.
- Make absolutely certain that you know your bag. By this I mean that you should be able to immediately pick your black roller bag out from among 50 other similar black roller bags. Every single trip I take, I watch someone accidentally pick up someone else’s luggage and start to walk out with it.
- Don’t “dawdle” when you leave the plane. Get your butt down to the luggage claim area and watch the chute where the bags come out. If a potential thief sees your bag take more than one lap around the carousel, it’s a tip that you’re not there.
- Assume that there are no cameras and no security in the luggage claim area. It’s true, the authorities are far more concerned about what is leaving the airport, rather than what has already arrived.
EXTRA: If you have questions for Ken regarding business travel, hotels, airplanes, etc, please send an email! Your questions will be recorded and Ken will answer the best ones in his Ask the Expert podcast show.