Another Reason Not to Check Your Bags

200 thefts from checked bags. A day. Just at one airport.

Think twice before you check your luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport…

All Rita Lamberg has left is an empty jewelry drawer and pictures of the $160,000 worth of watches, rings and necklaces that were stolen from her baggage at JFK Airport.

“I am so sick. This is a lifetime, a lifetime of my savings,” Lamberg said.

But Lamberg isn’t alone. Law enforcement sources told Kramer that thefts at the airport have increased at a staggering and alarming rate. There are now more that 200 a day — and that’s every day. Baggage handlers, jetway workers and even security people are all in on the ongoing scam to steal you blind.

“The belly of the airplane has become like a flea market for airport employees. They go in there and go through all the luggage unencumbered, unchecked,” JFK security lawyer Kenneth Mollins said.

…“What we’re seeing out there is that really anything that isn’t nailed down is being stolen and for that matter I would caution, some day, if there weren’t tires missing from an aircraft,” Shea said.

…“It’s really occurring on the tarmac or as it’s being loaded onto the aircraft,” Shea said.

Once they’ve found the goodies, Shea said there are many ways to make off with them.

“Sometimes they get loaded into the back of one of the vehicles out at the airport. They’re searched through. They can be discarded as rubbish. Other times they are leaving the airport grounds,” Shea said.

In other words, thieves steal your bags, but as a passenger you never find that out. The airlines say they are lost in transit.

Even you do check bags, don’t check $160,000 worth of jewelry. And further life advice: don’t invest “a lifetime of..savings” in jewelry in any case.

Still, adding to the chunk out of your life lost waiting at baggage claim, and the risk of loss especially when connecting and especially when connecting between airlines, is the risk of outright theft.

I’m not sure that i’m willing to believe 200 thefts a day, that strikes me as hyperbolic, perhaps there are a handful of thefts and you get to 200 adding up each individual item (a pair of socks is two items?) taken. But items out of your possession are… items out of your possession.

On a two week international trip I’ll check a bag, I don’t bring especially valuable items with me and I certainly don’t check my valuables, just my clothes. I’ve also had generally bad luck with U.S. carriers and outstanding luck with Asian ones. Singapore and Cathay Pacific will proactively verify for me that they have my bags on board, they’ll retag my bags as-needed even while in transit, it’s amazing service I’d never get from a U.S. carrier. Still, I also try to have clothing sufficient for a couple of days in my carryon because there’s always the risk of loss (or, I suppose, theft!).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary “Even you do check bags, don’t check $160,000 worth of jewelry. And further life advice: don’t invest “a lifetime of..savings” in jewelry in any case.”

    Amen to that! Almost makes the whole article seem unbelievable…

  2. 200 thefts a day is absolutely believable. People sometimes underestimate the volume of theft that occurs at large airports. I’ve seen over 100 thefts reported from baggage off a SINGLE FLIGHT at Gatwick (which subsequently resulted in police searching some ramp staff’s houses and arrests being made though). At a large airport like JFK, 200 thefts is less than a fraction of a percentage point of daily checked bags.

  3. A very relevant aspect is the risk versus payout from such thefts. If customers send valuables such as $160k per suitcase, then thefts will occur.

    Enforcement is important, but it’s also travelers’ responsibility not to make their luggage treasure chests.

    If all they found was clothes, thefts would probably not be as prevalent. I’m sure however they get tips from the baggage security screening people.

  4. I definitely believe 200 thefts/day. Last July, the better half, without thinking about it, placed a set of valuable earrings in her checked bag. Landed in London, NO BAG! With all the investigations, it was determined that it was handed over to TSA in SYR (origin) but disappeared from there. Bag was locked with “TSA locks”, so draw your own conclusions. Obviously, it was a costly lesson for her. Only check what you can afford to lose!

  5. People’s foolishness never seeks to amaze! How can people be so dumb? But then, I guess lots of people still leave their valuables in their car too. I never carry anything of value in checked bags – if you’ve done any flying you know that it is hit and miss with checked luggage appearing!

  6. Even people who know better will make mistakes…my neighbor flies a lot around the world. For some reason he put his laptop in his checked bag (still mystified why he did that) and the bag came up missing.

  7. Can you expound more on this statement sometime?
    “Singapore and Cathay Pacific will proactively verify for me that they have my bags on board, they’ll retag my bags as-needed even while in transit, it’s amazing service I’d never get from a U.S. carrier.”

  8. If you think TSA locks do anything worthwhile, think again. I stopped locking my bag after the lock was cut off and they damaged the zipper pulls. Besides, ever see the video of opening a zipper with a ball point pen and just pulling the zipper back and forth to close it? I know, preaching to the choir here…. I am amazed at how many people check laptops or leave them in a gate checked bag. Big no-no.

  9. Style of bag might matter. After having some stuff stolen from an old samsonite (clamshell) I had a luggage store salesperson recommend a Briggs&Riley 3 suiter that first zips inside, then folds over and zips outside.

    Hundreds of flights later, no losses. I even occasionally put my monopod in there on the way home.

    Of course, one customer isn’t a trend, but the logic of difficult, time consuming access makes sense to me.

  10. I check a boag on the majority of my trips. My business trips are more often than not extended and I require suits for most meetings, which means I need two of them. Plus, I just don’t like carrying a huge carry-on. I recently downsized to an 18″ bag and it is so much better. I carry two days of clothes in the carryon and the rest get checked. So far, I’ve not had a lost bag (knock on wood). I use the the TSA locks and don’t check any valuables. Checking a life savings of jewelry makes the woman in the article a candidate for the Darwin Awards, except that she is still living.

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