Luggage Theft a Persistent Problem at Airports

When you fly it's tough to avoid all the security. But thieves seem to be taking advantage of one part of the airport where airlines have loosened up on security.

Thieves turned Amy Bragg’s return flight from New York nearly two years ago into a stressful trip. Her suitcase was missing from the carousel at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“When it first happened I was furious,” said Bragg. “I just thought the airline lost my luggage … no big deal but then when I found out somebody had actually stolen my luggage I couldn’t even believe it.”

Sean Maxwell is charged with stealing bags from the airport including Bragg's. The Broward Sheriff’s Office released an airport bulletin with surveillance images that detectives say shows Maxwell – caught in the act – walking out of the airport with another passenger’s suitcase. Maxwell pleaded not guilty.

“He would come in acting like a passenger with a baggage cart and just walk up to the bag belt with the other passengers and just randomly pick bags off the bag belt and put it on his cart and walk out with them,” said BSO Capt. Roy Lidicott.

Police reports state Maxwell stole bags from several people a year and a half ago at the Fort Lauderdale airport. If convicted, it won't be the first time. Maxwell was found guilty of stealing luggage at Miami International Airport a year and a half ago, too.

Bragg says she’d like to see airlines beef up security in the baggage claim area again.

“When you’re at the baggage claim – there isn’t – there’s nobody protecting you about somebody leaving a bag or somebody taking your bag,” she said.

Airlines stopped regularly checking bag tags to verify luggage ownership more than a decade ago to save money – making it easier for thieves.

Miami-Dade Police are currently looking at a man they believe has been stealing suitcases from carousels at MIA for the past month and a half. Police circulated a bulletin with surveillance images of the man showing him at the airport.

- At Denver International Airport, one man was recently convicted on a variety of thefts. Police said he'd been stealing luggage for several years. Denver’s airport had 40 thefts from the carousel last year.

In Phoenix, police released surveillance images of men whom they say appear to be stealing suitcases from Sky Harbor International Airport just a few months ago. Police say they see these thefts every month.

“It’s a problem every day. Pretty much every airport I would say,” said baggage theft expert and airline employee Scott Mueller, referring to theft in the baggage claim area.

Mueller says he never checks his bags. He wrote “Empty Carousel,” a book about his experience as a manager in baggage services for another airline. Mueller says airlines, airports and law enforcement are focused on bigger security issues – like terrorism. He doesn’t think luggage theft is a priority.

“It’s just simply not a cost that the airlines are going to take any interest in,” he said.

The Team 6 Investigators found 65 theft reports at MIA in the baggage claim area in 2012 and that number dropped to 14 in 2013. There were 15 thefts in Fort Lauderdale's baggage claim area last year.

Mueller says numbers reported by law enforcement don’t paint the real picture because passengers don’t usually file a police report. No major airline would share their theft data with the Team 6 Investigators, making it impossible to know how big the problem really is.

Jet Blue sent the Team 6 Investigators a statement, which read in part, “We have found that baggage theft from the carousel is less than expected … and that the thefts … are mostly from fraud rings …"

Lidicott says his staff works closely with airlines to catch thieves when missing baggage claims go up.

In the end, Bragg says she lost about $3,500 worth of belongings and the airline only reimbursed her $30. But for her there was a silver lining. Detectives eventually found her suitcase and the thieves had left behind a Roberto Cavalli dress.

“I love that dress. I was so happy I guess they thought it was a piece of junk but it’s not actually. It’s expensive,” said Bragg.

Experts say luggage theft doesn’t happen very often in airports but urge passengers to get to baggage claim as quickly as possible. Even more important, travelers shouldn’t pack valuables or items that can't be replaced. If a bag does go missing, filing reports with both the airline and police offer passengers the best chance of getting belongings back.

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