Avoiding Theft at Airport Security

Arrival in Quito, Ecuador
Being careful everywhere, including airports.

As we prepare for our departure to Guatemala and secure the various latches on our gear, I’m reminded of being robbed by airport security employees in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport last year. Fortunately, miraculously – and somewhat shadily – I was reimbursed.

A recent comment from a woman who had money stolen at airport security in Toronto, Canada served as a reality check that this sort of thing can happen anywhere.

In the midst of the initial ordeal, my original story was posted on Thai Visa, an online travel bulletin board. In response, one of the members, lomatopo, followed up with some helpful suggestions to avoid being a victim of theft at an airport security checkpoint.

We thought some of the tips are worth sharing:

  1. Do everything possible to avoid a secondary screening; this means do not set off the metal detector. Short of removing metal plates/pacemaker surgically implanted in your body, remove everything metal (glasses, watch, wallet, pen, rings, jewelry, coins, phone, belt, shoes, earrings, piercings well before the security area and stow in a zippered carry-on bag, shoes go in a plastic carrier to go through the X-ray machine.
  2. Store valuables in a zippered, carry-on bag.
  3. Put the most valuable item on the conveyor belt last and make sure it is going through the machine. I usually go: Shoes, roll-a-board, zippered carry-on, PC.
  4. Step through the metal detector quickly and confidently; in the U.S.A. you need to show your boarding card when going through the metal detector so have it in your hands. I hold it with both hands, chest-high.
  5. Keep a close eye on the items coming out of the X-ray machine, make eye contact with anyone standing near the X-ray machine, excluding the operator.
  6. Even if you are asked for secondary (wand), regardless of whether you triggered the metal detector, gather up your zippered carry-on first, then get the wand.
  7. Step aside, re-assemble everything, double-check valuables.

We would also add the following airport safety advice:

  1. Provided you aren’t running late to the gate, take a few minutes to prepare your bags before you approach security. People who appear lost or disorganized make ideal targets for thieves. This is the time when you can stuff wallets and valuables in the inside pockets of your bags.
  2. Before you enter security, get your bearings, and make a quick note of your surroundings – including who is behind you and in front of you. This sort of body language might communicate “try someone else” to would-be thieves.
  3. After going through security and double-checking your belongings, perform another quick scan of your surroundings.

If you feel that you’ve been a victim of a crime, report it immediately and don’t allow employees and security guards to intimidate you or dismiss you lightly. Airport CCTV cameras cover almost every inch of space, so it’s likely that a theft will have been recorded on tape.

Ask to see the tapes, don’t give into your doubts too easily, and – most importantly – don’t give up.

Note: After attempting to contact Airports of Thailand (AOT), the Thai tourism bureau, and The Bangkok Post – all to no avail – you won’t be surprised that I shelved the idea of attempting to expose the Bangkok Airport security scam even further.

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Comments

  1. says

    Some really good tips for sure. I’m always so nervous b/c in Brazil they have you scan you passport through. I have my eye on it the entire time. I’ve also learned to stuff my wallet and jewelry as deeply inside and under things as I can when I go through the security line. At least this way they will have to search a while to find anything of importance.

  2. says

    @Lori: You have to scan your passport through at the same time your carry-on bags are being scanned? That sounds like too many moving parts for me. This is where eyes in the back of the head come in.

  3. Tony says

    The goverment is doing all of this on purpose to create more fear & confusion to be able to better control the sheeple all made by design & everything in this country will just continue to get even dumber everyday untill the sheeple have decided WE have HAD enough of all there stupid shit. isnt it so nice how they just feed us to the wolves..
    Im so tierd of having to live with so many BRAINDEAD sheeple.
    have you noticed that every single thing is all ass backwards? & all for a cause to Drive us all insane & there plan has worked flawlessly.

    Will the Sheeple Of America Ever Wake Up

  4. says

    Thanks for your well-written and thorough report. I have been the victim of stealth theft at airports. Now I lock my money belt before I put it through security check. I do the same if I use the hotel safety deposit box as many hotel staff have ‘override’ numbers to open locked boxes.

    Best
    Kathleen

  5. says

    @Tony: Perhaps you are referring more specifically to the situation in the U.S.?

    @Kathleen: Thanks for your comment — very nice to see you here.

    It definitely makes sense to stuff and lock your money belt before heading through security. I do it all the time now. It’s less convenient — but certainly more secure — than before.

    Regarding hotel safety deposit boxes: I never trust them. The whole premise seems to suggest “here’s something nice to steal.” I think it’s Paul Theroux, the travel writer, who safely makes his way through Africa on a quick overland trip, only to find out at the very end of the journey that the briefcase he’s entrusted to the hotel safe deposit box has disappeared entirely. Something to keep in mind.

  6. says

    Wow, do I feel naive after this! It has never–ever-occurred to me that something could disappear DURING the security check! I’ve always been very cautious about making sure I gather up all my stuff–thinking that another passenger before or behind me might walk off with it (whether intentionally or not), but had never even given it a thought that the workers themselves could do something like that…
    Thanks for the heads’ up!

  7. says

    @Margaret: You are welcome!

    When I discovered that my money belt was emptied, I felt like a fool. Some of the feedback on forums where this story was posted also painted me as a naive idiot. But who knew that security personnel themselves were the thieves? I do now. These days, everything’s tucked and locked away in my bag.

    Live and learn.

  8. says

    Having traveled a bit over the years, one thing I’ve learned… if you look like you really know what you’re doing and have your act together, regardless of whether you do or not, you don’t dress and/or act like an average American tourist (heaven forbid) and you appear to be observant and vigilant, people will tend to NOT treat you as a potential victim. Obviously this goes for airports, train stations, bus stations, etc. I’ve been in some very dangerous situations where simply exuding confidence and calling someone on something made the difference between serious problems and no problem.

  9. says

    @Jim: Thanks for your comment. Having your act together and not sticking out like a sore thumb certainly aids just about any travel circumstance. But in the case of my being robbed by airport security personnel in Bangkok, I think there’s little I could do outside of burying my valuables in a backpack and locking it before going through the scanner. In this case, it’s a scam and a well-practiced one. And it targets departure gates that typically take tourists as they make their way south to the beaches.

  10. says

    Had our moneybelts (well locked) stored in the safe at Dream Hill Bungalows in Haad Yao and found that one of our credit cards had been debited for 2 x 50,000 Baht transactions. Owners had used carbon paper to get card details through the thin nylon of the moneybelt!!! Reimbursed within a week of reporting the scam, so probably not the first (or last time) they did this

  11. says

    @Rod: Wow, what a story. That is creepy, and bold. And they shot the moon on the amount.

    Funny thing, just a few days ago, Audrey’s bag (with a TSA lock) was opened up while we were asleep on an overnight bus trip from Bangkok to Surat Thani. It was unbeknownst to us until we arrived at our guest house…in Haad Yao, very coincidentally.

    After reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (if you haven’t read it, he survives an overland journey in Africa with all his stuff intact, only to lose his briefcase in J’berg after leaving it in the safe.) After reading that, I trusted “safe boxes” even less. I think the temptation is too great.

    But the trick is, where to leave your stuff when you head out??

    Thanks for your comment…and yet another unbelievable (yet believable) scam story in Thailand.

  12. says

    Thai buses are an ongoing problem, especially those originating at KSR. For your “security” they get one of their staff to travel in the hold with the bags!

    There is also multiple delays to ensure that you are rushing to get your transfer bus/train/ferry on arrival and won’t have time to check your bags.

  13. says

    @Rod: We picked up the bus on Phra Artit Road, but it originated in KSR for sure. We’ll be avoiding them from now on. I like the “security” in quotes. I’m certain that’s what happened with us. A friend in Thailand suggested that our bags might have been used to move drug parcels down the peninsula. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised. We weren’t rushing per se, but the process was hardly smooth.

    In any event, I think we’re back to taking the train (or flying, price depending).

  14. M says

    “It definitely makes sense to stuff and lock your money belt before heading through security. I do it all the time now. It’s less convenient — but certainly more secure — than before.”

    So – excuse me for intruding on the conversation, but this would be my first transAtlantic flight — first flight out of the country in a loong time — and I’m traveling by myself.

    Do you put your passport and your money belt in your carryon, then lock your carryon? I’ve heard that the TSA will make you unlock it these days.

    Also, I understand you’re stuck in that — that X-ray thing (and no one seems to know if it leaks radiation; at least no one that’s talking; but that’s a different rant) — for up to 60 seconds, while your bag goes through the x-ray conveyor. If your money belt and passport are in there, how do you keep track of them??

  15. says

    @M: You are not intruding on the conversation at all. I’m glad you asked.

    I typically carry a money belt and a phone and sometimes a wallet. I pack it all in my carry-on (which is a backpack). And when I put it in the backpack, I make sure to tuck it in somewhere so it’s not just hanging out or I find a zippered inside section of the pack and put it in there. It sounds complicated, but it takes all of 20-30 seconds. This allows me to go through security with one item. If you are carrying a laptop (like us), you’ll be asked to remove it and put it in a separate tray/bin for scanning.

    Most times I lock the pack (in which case I have to put the key in a tray to be scanned). Other times, I leave it unlocked. But my backpack is not the easiest thing to open, so it’s not as if someone can go in and grab anything quickly. If you have any doubt as to the ease with which your carry-on can be opened and rifled through, just lock it. It certainly won’t hurt and will cost you a few seconds.

    If TSA / security asks me to open/unlock my bag (sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t), I make sure I have my stuff with me or in sight when I open the bag.

    They key is to make sure you are not in a rush. If you have time, you are calm. And when you are calm, you are less likely to be distracted.

    I hope this answers your question.

  16. M says

    Thank you very much, Daniel, for taking the time to respond.

    Do you also put your passport in with your money belt? Where do you put that?

    (I don’t have a problem being early. My flight will leave late at night so I can get in the next afternoon. I planned on being at the airport 12 hours before, in case some “security” someone decided to pull “authoritarian” shenanigans — which of course carries its own “What is she doing here so early?” risks. Sigh. (Trying to avoid your stupidities, TSA people!) I’ve been described as looking Ethiopian, Caribbean, and South American, depending on who’s looking, so I’m anticipating some secondary search nonsense.)

    When I was in college and just out, I used to run around the country kind of fearlessly. My godmother, who did a lot of her traveling in the seventies, tells stories of how she used to hop on a plane and bop over to Europe pretty much whatever summer she felt like it. I feel like things have gotten a lot different in a very short time (historically speaking).

  17. M says

    Oh – and I didn’t plan to bring my laptop for just this reason. I’m trying to attend a charity event, so I’m hoping I can get away with just carrying my Blackberry.

  18. says

    @M: Usually, I just stuff my passport into the inside pocket along with everything else. In other words, not necessarily inside the money belt. I do this because it’s possible/likely I’ll need to have my passport out again for boarding. I suppose if you wanted to be exceptionally careful, you could put it in the money belt, and put that inside the bag. For me, the most important thing is just to make sure it’s inside a bag and not particularly easy to get at, floating on a tray on the scanner belt. Lots of ways to do that.

    As for how early to arrive at the airport, you are probably OK with whatever guidelines the airline provides (those are usually more generous than is necessary) — as in 3 hours or so for international flights. I’m not sure airlines will even allow you to physically check in for your flight more than 3-4 hours before. (Aside from online check-in).

    As for travel now vs. the 70s, there are I’m sure obvious differences. But security has always been an issue in one respect or another. And petty thieves have always had and will likely always have a permanent place in history.

    In any event, for you and anyone else reading this post and the comments, I don’t recommend paranoia regarding your belongings and airport security. I think it just makes sense to take a few simple precautions and be aware.

    Safe travels!

  19. jack lumber says

    I have been ‘checked’ twice at Suvarnabhumi security and had half a tube of toothpaste confiscated and then they tried to confiscate 100ml plastic bottle of labelled medical eye wash. Both items had passed thro European and middle eastern airport security systems without any problem.
    The staff at Suvarnabhumi seem to have no idea, are not interested, in the real purpose of the security scanning system.
    At Suvarnabhumi the staff, mainly young girls, seem poorly trained and motivated and more interested in searching passengers lugguge than applying good security cover i.e preventing terrorism! They certainly have no idea about profiling, how to deal with passengers, and what is done at other airport security procedures.
    At Suvarnabhumi they rush you thro, give no advice or assistance with what they want, and then make a big issue of riffling thro your luggage only to find nothing!
    However if some passengers have had items stolen then that may be the real reason why some passengers, eg europeans and not Thais, are being selected!
    The ‘duty free shops’ at Suvarnabhumi have also been reported as having security problems. The answer seems to be keep out of Thailand unless really necessary and when passing thro Suvarnabhumi don’t take valuables or cash, but travellers checks, keep out of the airport shops and in the main stream with other passengers.

  20. says

    @jack: It’s interesting to hear that European passengers are being selected, picked up, and profiled more often at Bangkok airport security. Not surprising given readers’ response on this article. I just think it’s part of a scam…and it really is too bad.

    Just about any airport, but in particular at Suvarnabhumi, it definitely makes sense to keep a close eye on your valuables and have them tucked away.

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