Travel Resources

Safety Tips

Los Angeles police detective Kevin Coffey, who makes it his business to advise travelers on how they can avoid having their luggage stolen or pilfered, provides several useful tips to luggage manufacturers on how they can address this growing problem.

By John Misiano

Theft of personal property has replaced violent crime as the major security concern for today’s traveler. Corporate Travel/Beta Research concluded in a recent survey of 200 companies that luggage theft and pilferage by baggage handlers in airports alone account for more than one out of three travel disturbances, while hotel theft of luggage was reported to be a problem for nearly two out of three traveling executives. Since crimes of that nature tend to be under reported, they’re more common than most travelers think. For instance, if a bag disappears from an airline terminal, the theft may be reported to the airline instead of to police.

The Department of Transportation issues monthly “mishandled baggage” reports, but doesn’t differentiate between bags that are lost, stolen, misrouted, or damaged. The DOT also doesn’t compile any firm statistics on baggage theft. “Pilferage is a situation that’s shared between the airlines, airport police, and the traveler himself,” says Kevin Coffey, a detective sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department and president of Corporate Travel Safety, a consulting firm that provides seminars to businesses.

“If you leave your car door unlocked, there’s a good chance your car is going to be burglarized,” Coffrey continues. “But if you learn how the criminal operates and how he pilfers, you can reduce your chances of being victimized while traveling. I teach people how crimes occur, and show them how to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Although airlines have been cracking down on employee baggage and cargo thieves in recent years, they haven’t come close to stamping out the problem. Baggage handlers and ramp workers have a brief but uninterrupted opportunity to rifle luggage as it moves along miles of rollers and conveyor belts in the bowels of the airport. In one incident, American Airlines stung its own baggage handlers at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Five workers were videotaped divvying up $30,000 planted by the airline in a briefcase that was broken into after it had been checked. In another investigation, it was discovered that a suspect had 250 bags of luggage stowed in his house.

Despite the odds, Coffey says there are a number of things luggage manufacturers can do to address the widespread problem. He recommends that manufacturers of higher-end luggage change their key locks since most of the baggage handlers his investigative force apprehends are arrested with a full set of keys in their pockets. He advises companies to include a checklist with the luggage they sell so the customer can keep an inventory of the contents, and also recommends that a list of traveler’s tips be included on how to avoid having one’s luggage stolen.

According to Coffey, pilferage has become much easier for thieves due to the popularity of softsided luggage. “Softsided pieces are easy to break into – especially through the zippers,” he says. “Self-sealing zippers have always been a problem because they can be broken into, they self-seal, and then the owner has no idea he’s been robbed until he gets to his hotel. It’s hard to make a claim five or six hours later when you’re supposed to make it right there in the airport.”

As founder of the airport crimes investigations detail, Coffey has often worked undercover dressed as the harried businessman, the GQ junior executive making last-second cellular phone calls, or the broom-pushing janitor. He describes today’s airports as “small cities” that serve as Disneylands for thieves. In the six years he’s been handling these type of investigations, airport crime has been on the rise with thieves specifically targeting wallets, phone cards, passports, plane tickets and, especially, electronic equipment.

“It used to be cameras that were the thing, but laptops are more valuable,” states Coffey. Business travelers tend to be the easiest marks because they tend to be in a hurry and are easily distracted. “Lose your briefcase today and you can say good-bye to your laptop computer, your database of clients and prospects, countless megs of information, and maybe a new product prototype, not to mention the cost of the equipment; it can be devastating.”
Coffey has apprehended thieves dressed as business people working in teams at security checkpoints. He says airport criminals have become increasingly sophisticated. Getting tapped on the shoulder or bumped into may be a deliberate distraction so an accomplice can grab a bag. In another routine distraction, one thief will cause a delay for a traveler going through a metal detector while his accomplice nabs the luggage as it passes through the X-ray machine. Sometimes crooks will even concoct arguments or stage injuries to attract the traveler’s attention long enough to grab a bag. Coffey says he has documented more than 50 different distraction techniques.

Vulnerable points for theft include curbside check-in areas; skycap carts, where thieves will pick up bags the minute the skycap’s back is turned; airport bars; shuttle bus stops, where the driver is distracted when collecting his tip, telephone booths, restaurants, and rental luggage carts. Even restrooms are easy places to target victims, with criminals reaching under stalls to grab briefcases while the owner is otherwise occupied.

International travelers are especially tempting to airport thieves. All travelers exiting the country are likely targets since they are more preoccupied with myriad details and their attention isn’t always on their possessions. It’s also unlikely they’ll stay behind and complete a crime report since their next available flight could be hours or days later. Coffey says that wherever people put their bags down, they tend to put their guard down as well. “Locks on luggage are designed to keep honest people honest,” he notes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: When he’s not staking out “perps” and investigating crimes, Kevin Coffey is advising corporations on how employees can outfox the crooks and protect personal items and intellectual property. His seminars, which include actual footage of crimes being committed in hotels and airports, provide safety information for international travelers, a guide to preventing common travelers’ distraction thefts of laptops and briefcases, and “streetsafe” survival skills for travelers. He has also produced an audio tape on how crooks pilfer luggage. Coffey can be reached at Corporate Travel Safety, located in Calabasas, CA, 818-225-1991.