Has the TSA stolen from you?

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There's a provocative article on MSNBC this week about items being stolen out of people's luggage by Transportation Safety Administration inspectors.

Titled "Tips to ensure the TSA doesn't swipe your stuff," the article says that "the stealing isn’t as random as the TSA may want you to believe."

Well, I never anticipated I would ever find myself defending the TSA, for any reason. But in this case, I feel that the author has been sensationalizing a relatively small number of incidents, like some journalists hype shark attacks. It's so uncharacteristic of the author's previous writing that I'm not sure what to make of it. Perhaps I'm missing something.

Let's "unpack" the arguments:

The author quotes a statistic from the TSA:

Since it was created in 2001, the agency has fired about 200 employees accused of stealing.

But he doesn't put that statistic in context, as we did when we blogged about it before:

To date, we [the TSA] have terminated and sought prosecution for about 200 of our employees who have been accused of stealing, either from checked bags, passengers' carry-ons or fellow employees. While 200 out of more than 110,000 employees is a minuscule percentage (less than one half of one percent) over the short life of the agency, one theft is too many when you are in the position of public trust as we are.

Even if some thieves steal a lot of items before they're caught, less than one half of one percent of all employees is not "systemic."

The author goes on to cite an NBC TV report from a Miami TV station. At Miami's main airport, about "1,500 items have been reported stolen at the airport since 2003."

But that statistic needs to be put in context. Those reported thefts were not reported thefts only by TSA agents but reported thefts at the airport, including airline employees and loitering pickpockets. It's not fair to single out the TSA for blame in this case.

It's also a list of items "reported stolen," which is not the same thing as a list of confirmed thefts. Just as there are some bad apples at the TSA—as in any organization—there are some travelers who get agitated while they're at the airport and misplace items. For these travelers, it's preferable to get incensed at an imaginary theft by a TSA agent than to fess up to themselves that they probably misplaced their item. Many of the reported thefts at Miami's airport (averaging about 375 thefts a year out of millions of passengers passing through) may not, in fact, have been items that got lost or misplaced by travelers.

Let's go back to the article. Here's a quote:

One aviation insider I spoke with believes stealing is a systemic problem the federal agency is unable to control, particularly at problem airports like New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport. Not all of the screening areas in U.S. airports are under surveillance.

Now, wait a second. Why is this "insider" speaking anonymously? If he or she is a TSA official who is aware of a systemic problem, shouldn't he or she go public as a whistleblower? Shouldn't he or she follow the example of the FAA officials who recently testified on Capitol Hill about the aircraft inspection process. If so, shame on this "insider" for not testifying.

[UPDATE 4/29: It turns out that transportation security officers do not have "whistleblower" protections the way other federal workers, such as those FAA officials, do. Charity Wilson, legislative representative for American Federation of Government Employees, explains that TSA workers who speak out against wrongdoing and who later believe they are retaliated against, have no agency where they can appeal and receiving a binding decision in their favor, unlike other federal workers. (For more info, visit whistleblower.org.) Also, while other federal workers can use their union's grievance process to anonymously speak up about wrongdoing on the job, transportation security officers have no such union and can only speak up as individuals, which is scarier. All that said, it's not clear whether the person being interviewed in this article was a transportation security officer. The person was not identified.]

On the other hand, if this "insider" is not a TSA official, how can we trust that he or she has actually visited several screening areas and does, in fact, know that they're not under surveillance? In other words, I think there are very few people who have been in a position, based on their jobs, to make such observations. It's not clear based on the vague identification as "an aviation insider."

Second, the need for putting luggage inspectors "under surveillance" seems debatable. Surely, these luggage inspectors are typically working side by side in the typical set-up. Inspectors are watching each other. How exactly would one rogue inspector pocket a pair of eyeglasses or set aside a necklace for later removal without any of his or her fellow inspectors noticing? Not easily, I imagine. Spot inspections are appropriate, but expecting full "surveillance" seems like overkill.

Next up, the anonymous insider makes this claim:

The TSA's rules have a big loophole that shifts liability for stolen baggage claims to the airline when luggage is delayed, he told me.

Now, this doesn't seem plausible to me. The aviation insider is saying that TSA agents feel they can filch through the bags with impunity because if the bags are delayed they will be held at some point in a space under the eyes of airline employees, not TSA employees. So the TSA won't bother to investigate because the agency can instead say to the airline, "Maybe one of your airline employee filched through the bags. Why are you blaming our staff people instead of investigating your own?"

I don't follow how this "liability" issue is a "big loophole." Consider this from the practical point of view of a thief who works for the TSA. On average, one out of four major commercial flights are delayed. It seems reasonable to deduce from that fact that, on average, one in four bags are delayed, too. If you're a thief who works for the TSA, then you know that in three out of four cases, the bag you're stealing from bears all of the standard liability for the TSA. In other words, most of the time, the TSA will be "on the hook" if a bag is robbed. Those kinds of odds are not really an incentive for a TSA worker to steal.

Enough, then, with the nit-picking. What's a traveler to do?

It isn't smart to bring precious jewels and keepsakes with you in your bags. But the reason it isn't smart is because they might get stolen during the course of your trip (not just during luggage inspection). I don't know about you, but I often find I am more prone to misplacing things when I'm traveling. If you're also prone to misplacing things, you might think twice about bringing costly devices. Lastly, why do you need to carry all that fancy stuff anyway? If it's important, you can ship it.

To be clear: The TSA must vigorously weed out any thieves in its ranks. No question about that.

But there is not enough evidence to suggest that thievery is a pervasive problem.

If you do, however, suspect that a TSA agent has stolen your precious items, please, please, please fill out a complaint form on the TSA website. If you don't fill it out, your case won't be tracked and a thief might target other travelers' gear, too.

Feel free to voice your opinions by posting a comment below.

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