TSA’s Theft Problem: Money, iPads, Meds, Lies, and Blurry Videotape

Discussion in 'Aviation Passenger Security in the USA' started by TSA News Blog, May 19, 2013.

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    More than a year after elderly travelers Omer Petti and Madge Woodward claimed TSA screeners stole $300 from them during the course of what they described as “extreme pat-downs” at the San Diego International Airport, it appears that TSA has reimbursed Mr. Petti. The agency continues to deny culpability, claiming the surveillance video was too blurry for them to be able to identify the thief.
    Mr. Petti, a retired 96 year old WWII Air Force Major, had lodged complaints with State and Federal lawmakers, TSA, and Delta Airlines; he also filed a tort claim with TSA seeking reimbursement.
    “Here it is,” Petti said in triumph, waving the official embossed check from the U.S. Department of Treasury.​
    We may draw a couple of conclusions. One, the video really was clear enough that the investigative crew could reasonably identify the amount–$300 in cash–that had been stolen (and was therefore likely clear enough–especially when cross-referenced with employee schedules–to identify the thief himself). And two, since no employee was publicly charged and held accountable, Petti’s “official embossed check from the U.S. Department of Treasury” was simply a PR effort on the part of the TSA, one which perpetuates the agency’s customer-service charade while also covering up–and (they surely hoped) closing the file on–yet another episode of TSA screener theft and abuse of innocent passengers.
    Given the number of articles about this incident appearing over the past year (still available on a Google search), that was probably the least effective hush money ever paid. Certainly the three hundred bucks wouldn’t come close to covering the time and effort it took Petti to make all the calls, write all the letters, and file all the paperwork involved. Petti was doing this as a matter of principle, and we salute him.
    But this rare bit of good news stands in sharp contrast to the nature of other, more typically-concluded stories of egregious, unresolved, and unpunished incidences TSA theft. These continue to deluge the local news media; too often, though, they go unnoticed by larger national outlets.
    For example, there’s this story, from WPXI in Pittsburgh:
    Jewelry, laptops, electronics — all items reported missing from Pittsburgh International Airport in recent months — yet Channel 11 has learned TSA has only distributed $1200 in reimbursement checks.​
    Laura Snell of the TSA in Pittsburgh has taken the angry calls.​
    “If we’ve done something wrong, we want to make sure those passengers are paid,” she said. According to TSA data we obtained, 58 Pittsburgh airport passengers filed claims of damaged of lost items last year.​
    Already this year, 17 people have filed claims.​
    Channel 11’s David Johnson wanted to know why so few claims are reimbursed and uncovered a unique tracking mechanism at Pittsburgh International Airport.​
    Unlike at most other airports, Snell has the backup of about two dozen cameras that track your checked bag, literally every step of the way.​
    So: in 2012, 58 passengers filed claims of damaged of lost items, including jewelry, laptops and electronics, at Pittsburgh airport. But TSA has only distributed $1200 in reimbursement checks for those, to date.
    And TSA representative Laura Snell denies TSA involvement, stating ”I’ve been here 8 1/2 years; I’ve never seen us (sic) take a thing. I don’t know how else to put it”, and the public is supposed to be satisfied.
    Ironically, Snell’s dismissal of the possibility that TSA workers stole from passengers comes a week after two reports of TSA worker theft, including one that was released by the screener’s employer.
    In the first incident, at Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, TSA supervisor Jeremy Hemingway was observed allegedly stealing pills from a passenger’s luggage. The Post Standard obtained an email from Syracuse Police outlining that they had escorted Hemingway and his belongings from the airport after a videotape showed him removing contents from a bag he removed from the belt for inspection despite a lack of an alarm.
    Hemingway, who worked with TSA for eight years, was terminated, but TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein refused to comment other than to say “The individual no longer works for TSA.” Moreover, Syracuse police declined to arrest or charge Hemingway with a crime citing the lack of an owner to prosecute the case. There is no word from TSA or Syracuse officials regarding how many other items have been reported stolen during Hemingway’s term at the facility.
    Then, on April 26, 2013–just days after the Syracuse incident–police in Columbia, South Carolina confirmed that TSA screener Eric Richard Dunlap was arrested by DHS officials at Columbia Regional Airport failing an “honesty check”:
    Columbia Police Sergeant Joe Bernhard said the arrest took place after what he called a Department of Homeland Security honesty check. As part of the honesty check, a DHS official posed as a traveler gave Dunlap a bag with $500 inside, claiming he found it at the airport.​
    Bernhard said officials then saw Dunlap leave the airport Thursday morning with the bag and arrested him.​
    The DHS “honesty check” operation was launched due to mounting complaints from passengers that items were missing from their bags. DHS reviewed surveillance video, which showed him removing items from bags. Dunlap, who had worked for TSA several years, was arrested “on suspicion of stealing” and released on bond, but had not been charged as of the date of the story. As with the Syracuse case, there was no statement from the airport regarding the number of theft complaints during Dunlap’s tenure.
    As we at TSA News are often reminding readers, there are many proactive things travelers can do on the anti-theft front. First and foremost, of course, is the common-sense advice to pack light and bring along only that which you’ll absolutely need. (Easier said than done for those of us who need to bring a number of items or changes of clothes, for any number of reasons, but it’s nonetheless worth noting, as fewer items mean fewer things to keep track of and a greater likelihood that a stolen item’s absence will be noticed immediately.)
    And if you’re traveling with one or more Mac electronics, you may wish to consult this Mac user’s recent blog entry outlining how to recover a MacBook after a TSA screener steals it (depending on the model, this should work well for iPads and iPhones, too).
    On a vacation with his wife and kids recently, Paul Deas opened his suitcase and found a rude surprise: his MacBook had been stolen. Paul eventually got his MacBook back, but his post on the matter is interesting food for thought, not only because it reveals just how common TSA theft is (there’s millions of Google results for “TSA Theft”) but how, even if you get your MacBook back, you’re not likely to catch the person who actually stole it.​
    Again, this is common sense, but it bears repeating because we all get distracted and even forgetful when we’re packing, particularly when we’re time-crunched: Don’t put your valuable computer equipment (or, indeed, anything valuable) in your checked luggage. And as for what you pack in your carry-on–which, sadly, may also be ransacked and stolen from while you’re separated from it during a pat down, say–consider locking your valuables together on a single cable inside your bag, as we posted about in How to Stop the TSA From Stealing Your Stuff. [Some of our contributors now use, and recommend, this method. -- Ed.]
    And you can further help reduce the marketability of stolen electronics themselves: if you’re considering buy a used MacBook or iPad (or any electronic piece) off Craigslist or eBay, request some sort of proof of ownership from the seller. This also protects you from unscrupulous sellers who describe a 2-year-old piece as having been bought “just a couple of weeks ago, so it’s like new!”
    How disheartening, though, that the writer seems resigned to accept that TSA will steal from us and we all should anticipate that thieves–thieves whose salaries we pay until and unless they are caught–will be ransacking our belongings whenever we fly.
    Despite the ongoing and oftentimes hilariously inept (or else Orwellian in their doublespeak-saturation) efforts by TSA to improve the agency’s image–and even after having been sharply, repeatedly criticized by citizens, consumer advocates, celebrities, and even certain government officials–serious problems, including but not limited to sexual abuse and theft, persist.
    Worse, a large swath of the populace now seem resigned to being assaulted and/or stolen from as a standard part of the air travel experience.
    As recent events have demonstrated, patterns of misconduct do eventually get exposed, often on a national and even worldwide basis, and even the most artful spin by Blogger Bob can’t prevent the truth from surfacing.
    America deserves better. TSA and DHA are our employees: our tax dollars pay their salaries. We must demand that agency officials and employees be held accountable–not just for the thefts themselves, but also for the lies, covering-up, and, when that fails, the narrative-spinning that invariably ends with some variation of “We hold employees to the highest ethical standards but cannot release more details of these incidences due to national security matters. But hey, it’s all okay–everything is just to keep you safe!”

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