I was robbed.
It didn't happen at a grungy guest house, in a crowded local market, or down a dark alleyway at night. It happened in Bangkok's shiny new Suvarnabhumi Airport at a gate security checkpoint. Worse yet, the thief was a security employee.
We’ve been on the road for almost 14 months. With the exception of a few dollars worth of local currency shorted from a stack of bills given to us by a bank in Uzbekistan, we’ve remained vigilant and fortunately unthieved…until now.
The Scene of the Crime: Bangkok Airport
We arrived at the Bangkok airport for our flight to Krabi, Thailand almost two hours early. After checking in, we approached our gate with well over an hour to spare. The waiting area was virtually empty and only a few bored security employees milled around the metal detectors.
Because of an exceptionally strict 15-kilogram checked luggage limit enforced by Air Asia, we lumbered towards the security checkpoint at our gate laden with some added carry-on cargo. I pulled off a small backpack and a small side bag and placed them on the conveyor belt. As Audrey was being scanned at the metal detector just ahead of me, I removed my money belt from around my waist and emptied my pockets into a tray headed for the x-ray machine.
I walked through the metal detector and was scanned with a wand. When I turned around, my bags had come out, but the tray was still apparently on the belt inside. This gave me pause. I turned back to see what was happening. As I did, the tray came through. I assembled my stuff. I tugged the money belt around my waist, buckled it, and took a seat.
We sat at the front of the gate with a sparse group waiting to board. Arriving so early for a flight is a rarity for us, so I took the opportunity to sift through my pockets and empty them of the garbage I had collected. I did the same with my money belt.
Three days prior, we made a large ATM withdrawal to cover some new equipment purchases. I remember counting and splitting the money with Audrey the night before the flight, to the tune of eight or nine-thousand Baht ($260-$300) each in 1000 bills. We were exceptionally and unusually laden with cash. I even remembered thinking “my, there’s a lot of [crap] in here” as I struggled twice to tuck the money belt into my pants, once after check-in and again after a ticket check before gate security.
Sitting at the gate, I unzipped the lower pocket of the belt with the intent of sorting through my local currency, confirming my boarding pass was still there, and tossing away some useless receipts which often collect there like navel lint.
I plunged my hand into my money belt and expected to grasp a stack of cash and papers, but I came up relatively empty-handed. My heart sank.
All that remained of a stack of 1000s, 100s, and small change: a few 20 Baht bills and a 50. Each of my large bills was gone, as if surgically removed. I was stunned. “Maybe the money evaporated?” I suggested to myself. No kidding. For a moment I thought of our German magician friend and some of the disappearing acts he's able to negotiate. “Maybe I accidentally dumped the entire stash down the urinal in the men’s bathroom?”
The level of self-doubt I subjected myself to in those brief moments of empty-walleted shock was profound.
I looked at Audrey: “I can’t believe it. I’ve been robbed.” I stood there pitifully, as if some intermediary might hear my plea and suddenly make the money re-appear. He never did.
Fending off another bout of uncertainty, I forced myself back to the last lucid moment between me and the front compartment of my money belt.
“It must have happened at security!” There were only 40 minutes until boarding time to sort this out.
“Do you want me to come with you to security?” Audrey asked. “Of course,” I said, thinking that it would be a good idea in case I fainted. I was flushed and sinking in a sea of urgency and tortured thoughts and emotions. I felt utterly foolish and hung in disbelief.
The feeling of violation that comes after being robbed began to wash over me. I shook with anger, but gathered composure as I walked the few meters back towards security. “But what if I’m wrong?” I wondered again.
I reviewed everything in my head again in a split second and re-affirmed my belief that the money must have been lifted at the security checkpoint.
I explained to one of the security personnel that money was missing from my money belt, purposely trying to avoid making any accusations. Although I remember being alone in line before the x-ray machine, perhaps a rogue traveler had appeared behind me.
Although the security staff’s English was good, the woman I approached could barely understand what I was saying. I deliberately hushed my voice a few notches to compensate for the adrenaline that had poured into my bloodstream. Once the woman understood my circumstances, she insisted that we check all of our bags and pockets as she announced my claim to the rest of the crew.
The security personnel were confident that I had misplaced my money. At least that's how they appeared. Many of them shook their heads in a way that implied “another idiot tourist.” I insisted that my money never left my money belt when I traveled, but I rifled through all of our bags and pockets just to please them.
“Can I see the films?” I asked, pointing to the video cameras monitoring the area. The woman confirmed that I could.
“How much?” she asked. “8000 Baht ($260),” I said. She shrieked, somewhat angrily and in disbelief that I could have been carrying such a wad of money, that it could have been stolen at security and – god forbid – that one of the security employees could have been a witness to the loss, let alone the thief.
We still had time until our flight was scheduled to depart. I was fairly certain that if there were no guilty parties and I had simply lost my money, the tapes would prove the security crew innocent. When the security team realized I was serious about watching the tapes, they took my passport and flight details and started making phone calls.
I began to sweat. I suspect the thief did, too.
I was asked to stand behind the metal detector and stare into two wide-angle video cameras tucked into the corners behind the conveyor belts and metal detectors. Officials sitting in some closed-circuit TV room confirmed my identity in order to locate me in sequence of passengers on the tape. The theft was minutes fresh, so it must have been easy to queue up.
For the next 45 minutes, a sea of uniformed security people entered the gate, huddled in the corner, made phone calls and barely acknowledged us. At one point it appeared as though they were scanning the gate for one of the passengers. Our boarding time approached.
“Why don’t they make a move?!” I anxiously wondered aloud.
Finally, as passengers began boarding the plane, one of the women approached us and explained that she was the duty officer responsible for the security team. She asked me to explain what happened again. As I filled out the claim form, she admitted that they had found a member of the security staff doing something suspicious on the tape. “We have to talk to her,” she said, indicating it was fairly clear who sticky-fingered Sally was.
“This has never happened before,” she offered apologetically.
She cautioned me that they had procedures to follow. “We must make an investigation and get the insurance company involved,” she said, slightly shaken. By the time we completed the claim form, the gate was empty. The entire team of security personnel (likely including the thief) gathered in front of us and watched us as we thanked the duty manager and turned around to board our flight. An odd departure by any measure.
We were the last ones to board the plane. I was exhausted and my thoughts were consumed with the incident. I wondered if I would ever see my money. Even worse, I knew well that this lingering feeling of mistrust would remain with me for some time to come.
Bold, Stupid, or Just a Scam?
Considering that there are security cameras absolutely everywhere these days, stealing at a security checkpoint isn't just bold, it's stupid.
But maybe not. The duty officer claimed that she has never had to deal with this before. “What did she mean by this?” I wondered. She was referring to never having had to face a passenger who discovered a theft at the gate. I wondered how many other travelers have had a few bills stolen from their wallets or money belts, only to later discover the theft and dismiss it as mistaken or insignificant – if they happen to catch it all. I find it almost impossible to believe that I was the very first passenger to walk away from a Bangkok airport security checkpoint a few bills lighter.
It's probable that audacity was supported by something else: coordination. After all, how could one employee manage a theft like this without a fellow security employee not being aware of it? An accomplice eases the process of dividing, conquering and diverting unsuspecting passengers' attention while negotiating a blind spot in the security cameras.
To believe that this was an uncoordinated, one-time incident involving one security employee is not only hard to believe, it's naive. I would bet all my travel money that this is a scam.
I mean, who expects to be robbed at security? I do now. You probably should, too.
Although I usually tuck my money belt and phone deep inside my backpack before entering a security checkpoint, most other people place their wallets and valuables right in the security trays, just as I had done this time. There is an intrinsic trust – however misplaced – that one’s valuables are safe in the hands of security personnel. More critically, we hope and trust that their eyes are on the lookout for sharp metal objects and bomb-making elements. If security employees are scamming my belongings, how can they be paying attention to the security of the airplane we're about to board?
Answer that for yourself. This incident doesn’t make me feel any better about airplane security, something about which I had serious doubts already.
So, next time you go through security at an airport, remember to watch your sharp objects and liquids…and keep your valuables hidden from security employees. Though most are thankfully just doing their jobs to keep us safe, some are obviously on the take.
The Waiting Game
Yesterday we were contacted with confirmation that the investigation concluded, indicating that at least one of the security employees was involved; the insurance company would be engaged. Today, I'm told that although the insurance company was now involved, investigations continued. I have no idea what this means, but I intend to recover my money.