Airport thieves get left holding bag

You know the anxious feeling you get while you wait for your luggage to appear on the carousel at an airport? The one that says your luggage has been lost.

Well, you probably should be more worried that it might have been stolen.

Baggage thefts, a crime of opportunity that comes and goes in cycles, are in one of those upward cycles at McCarran International Airport, said Randy Walker, head of the Clark County Aviation Department.

While I've been hearing rumblings about the theft problem at the airport in recent weeks, Kim Deering, of Kingman, Ariz., can speak from experience.

Deering flew into McCarran last Sunday evening on a Southwest Airlines flight. After departing the plane, Deering took the tram to the main terminal to grab her lone piece of luggage.

It wasn't there.

Deering knew the flight had a short turnaround and figured the luggage probably was left on the plane by mistake, so she filled out the appropriate paperwork and went home.

For the next three days, she spoke on a daily basis with Southwest representatives and learned about the baggage theft problems at the airport.

On Wednesday morning, when her bag still was not found, Deering decided to file a report with police. (I contacted Southwest for comment, but did not hear back from them in time.)

The contents of her bag were worth upwards of $3,000, she said.

But it's not the lost monetary value that is most upsetting. It's the personal items she lost, including her favorite pair of jeans, the Lucky Brand T-shirt with peace symbols on it, and her red zip-up jacket.

And there was the platinum necklace from Tiffany's that her husband had given her on her 42nd birthday.

"I always wear it, but I was in a rush to get through (airport) security and didn't take it out of my bag," Deering said.

Now it's gone.

"These were my personal belongings. They were memories. They made up my identity. And that was stolen from me," she said.

Unfortunately, the rise of airport baggage thefts shouldn't come as a surprise. Crime tends to escalate in tougher economic times. And baggage theft is one of the easier crimes of opportunity. After all, you don't have to be an airline passenger to go to the baggage claim. Anyone can go, including thieves.

Capt. Bob Chinn, head of the Metropolitan Police Department's airport bureau, could not give specific statistics about recent baggage thefts, saying, "It's difficult to track."

The difficulty is that it's not immediately clear whether a bag was stolen or lost, Chinn said. That can take up to 72 hours, he said. Then it has to be determined whether it was stolen at McCarran or at the point of departure or at a connecting airport.

Deering, who has flown frequently into and out of McCarran the past 20 years, said she believes one of the contributing problems are the new carousels, which are at least twice the size of the old carousels and make it difficult to watch the luggage as it goes around.

But Walker said he didn't believe the size of the carousels was a significant issue regarding baggage theft.

"The same opportunity was there before," he said.

A bold thief doesn't know if the bag they are taking belongs to the person next to them or someone else, he said. That's why thieves often will wait until most passengers are gone before taking a bag, Walker said.

Deering, 43, recalled the days when baggage claim personnel at McCarran would check tags on bags as travelers were leaving. "That needs to be reinstated," she said.

Chinn told me that "positive bag identifications" were disbanded by the airlines because of increased costs for other types of security measures after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I don't think reinstating baggage checks is something that's going to happen anytime soon, considering the hard financial times being experienced by many airlines.

But there are some things airline passengers can do to help protect themselves, Chinn and Walker told me.

• Don't check expensive items such as cell phones, iPods, laptop computers, or expensive jewelry. Thieves often can tell by the weight of the bag whether it is worth taking.

• Make an inventory of what you take. If your bag is stolen it will help in the recovery effort.

• Consider using locks approved by the Transportation Security Administration (available in most travel stores). Even the slightest deterrent can make a thief think twice about taking a bag.

• Don't dilly-dally when you land. Head straight to baggage claim. Thieves often will wait until most passengers are gone before taking bags that have yet to be claimed.

Other measures are being taken to stop baggage thefts, Chinn said.

Plainclothes police officers are on the prowl on the baggage claim floor, the captain said, and he has requested more plainclothes officers to help tackle the problem.

During some recent high-profile conventions, Las Vegas police also have sent out volunteers dressed in yellow shirts with the word "police" printed on them.

Chinn said when the volunteers have been out, reports of stolen baggage dropped to zero.

"We didn't receive one report on those occasions," he said.

Chinn expects to use the volunteers more often, considering their success.

In the meantime, Deering didn't sound optimistic about ever finding her stolen baggage. She spoke out so that others can be aware of the problem and hopefully avoid becoming a victim.

And she's right. Public awareness of this crime will go a long way in preventing it from happening.

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