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posted: 3/6/2011 2:00 AM

Travelers beware of looted luggage

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Did you hear about the Newark security screener who took upon himself to lighten travelers' loads? It wasn't that he was trying to lift their spirits while they passed through the painful security checkpoint experience we've learned to hate. He simply wanted to lift their wallets. According to The Associated Press, Michael Arato managed, with help from a co-worker, to pick up approximately $30,000 over about a year's time.

While Arato performed a secondary security check of a passenger, his sidekick checked out the passenger's carry-on for cash. The rattled passenger probably didn't realize she had been fleeced until she was cruising at 35,000 feet or even later. It took several months and several complaints before the twosome was nabbed.

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This isn't the first TSA agent to create a profitable cottage industry out of luggage looting. Ever since terrorist attacks required the government to increase airport security, slippery fingers have created a cottage industry for dishonest screeners. While most TSA agents are honorable, it is still a big concern. The problem is the pay scale is low and turnover high, which can attract some disreputable characters. Over the past few years, government sting operations have uncovered such crimes at New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, St. Louis and several other airports.

But what is different is the location. Past lootings usually took place in the baggage departments. A dishonest agent X-raying a suitcase could easily see what was inside, and packed valuables were prime for the picking. But now, because of the more intense security checkpoints, passengers are often separated from their carry-on belongings for extended periods of time. While their owners get probed, computers, expensive camera equipment and wallets remain alone in bins, begging to be picked up.

And it isn't just crooked agents like Arato that help themselves to the goods. According to one travel agent, ever since the installation of the body scanners and the secondary personal scans, petty theft at security checkpoints has increased. Passengers become confused when dealing with removing clothing, facing a full-body scan and possibly a second body scan.

Frequent flier Bob Johnson agrees. Last week, while undergoing a second scanning at Salt Lake City International Airport, someone walked off with his $2,000 computer.

"It's impossible to keep track of your things, when someone has you standing spread eagle and is patting you down," Johnson said.

The problem isn't going away. But you do have some rights. If you are pulled aside for a second screening, ask first that an agent bring your personal belongings to where you can easily keep them in your view. It's bad enough having your privacy invaded; you shouldn't also have to worry about your carry-on being carried-off.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via e-mail at gailtodd@aol.com.

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