TSA-approved locks don't always keep belongings safe

TSA-approved locks
November 16, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A must-have for many travelers going home for the holidays this year is a TSA-approved luggage lock to keep bags safe. The locks secure your belongings while allowing TSA agents to inspect locked luggage using a master key. But the system doesn't always work.

If the system worked, travelers would be able to reuse their locks each time they travel and know their luggage is being kept safe. But that doesn't always happen because some locks are simply being cut off.

San Francisco resident Elbert Lee travels for work about twice a month. He's learned not to expect to get his luggage locks back after using them.

"I'm always anxious to see whether the lock will still be there when it comes off into the turnstile," he said.

Atlanta resident Leslie Page landed at San Francisco International Airport with a similar story.

"Sometimes I find that the lock has been tampered with, and my valuables are sometimes missing," she said.

It's a story Tim Winship has read over and over. He works for the travel blog, flyertalk.com.

"It's been a low-level buzz on flyertalk for several years, and it seems to have spiked recently," Winship said.

Lee estimates it's happened to him about two to three times a year. It's happened so much, he started documenting it with pictures.

"I can't tell you why; I was told repeatedly that they had keys and my lock would be secure and intact," he said.

At Brookstone's SFO location, TSA-approved locks sell for $20 and are a popular item. Store personnel say the combination locks are often sold out.

Exactly what's happening with the locks remains a question of debate.

"It may actually be a situation where TSA agents are pilfering items from the bags and don't want there to be evidence left over," Winship said.

The Department Of Transportation tells 7 On Your Side that in the fiscal year just ended, they've received more than 3,500 complaints having to do with TSA-approved locks.

But reported incidents of theft are quite small, just over 200 each year for the last three years from an estimated 1.8 million who travel daily through U.S. airports.

"Cologne was missing; things that I have purchased while over in Europe," Page said.

The TSA would not speak on camera, but a spokesperson said by phone and email that there's no proof its agents are clipping the locks, saying, "Physical baggage inspections do not require the TSA to cut or otherwise damage TSA-approved locks. As a last resort when TSA-approved locks are unable to be opened, locks are cut." The spokesperson went on to say for every TSA agent that touches a bag, another dozen airline employees also touch it.

The airline trade group Airlines for America says its members have put cameras along the baggage path and routinely take measures to make sure baggage arrives on time and in the same condition as it was checked.

Lee points the finger back at the TSA.

"It would be good to get my money back, but more importantly I want some assurances and more proclamation about standing behind their jobs as TSA agents," he said.

Here are a few tips to consider when traveling:

  • Never pack any valuables in your luggage, keep them with you in your carry on luggage.
  • Travel with solid, but inexpensive luggage so as not to be noticed by thieves.

If you ever do run into a problem, you can file a claim with the TSA.

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