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Why does the TSA frisk you after you have gone through the body scanner?

This has happened to me every time I fly and a few times the "frisk" was unannounced. The first time a TSA agent touched me inappropriately after I went through the scanner without a word to me before, during, or after. I felt assaulted and broke down in tears. Recently a TSA agent, after I had been through the scanner, again touched me inappropriately under my clothing.

What is the deal?

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    I'm sorry this happened to you, but I don't think this is a question we can answer. Please complaint with the TSA instead. Mar 15 at 4:41
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    When I still had to go through the scanners, I learned to take EVERYTHING out of my pockets--chapstick, tissues--because they would cause alerts and I'd get patted down.
    – mkennedy
    Mar 15 at 16:01
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    The scanners, while vague, are sensitive. I once was asked, after the scan highlighted my shoulder, if I had been working out that day. Yes, I had (not usual for me) and the flagged shoulder was slightly sore. So maybe your clothing is tripping up their scan algorithm, or maybe you have a habit of clutching something like a large purse or bag that is causing a warm spot to remain during your scan.
    – donjuedo
    Mar 15 at 20:21
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    Sorry to hear you had such bad experiences. I have been frisked in sensitive areas a number of times but the agents have always been polite, explained what they needed to do, asked if I wanted it done in private and used the backs of their hands. So I second the suggestion to complain about these particular agents, even if you only have times & places to identify them with.
    – Dragonel
    Mar 16 at 16:25

5 Answers 5

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Why does TSA frisk you after you have gone through the body scanner?

Specifically, with the body scanner, you can see on their screen if you look that it all they see is a vague alert superimposed over your body. E.g., there's something to look at on their belt.

enter image description here

Neither of those events sounds remotely appropriate and I'm sorry that happened and second the suggestion to complain formally, but if this is a consistent problem, you might try removing more material that might be alerting the system (wear a simple t-shirt instead of a shirt with a lot of construction).

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    If it's the stomach area they are interested in, ensure all belts are removed, as well as anything in pockets.
    – abligh
    Mar 15 at 20:17
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    Shirts with foil lettering might be enough to confuse the scanners. I have a shirt with an RFID blocking pocket, and I reliably get a pat-down if I wear it (but they tell me what they’re going to do, rather than just groping me)
    – Joe
    Mar 15 at 23:52
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    Sometimes the scanners seem to be extra sensitive. Two of the more surprising things they flagged on my flights: [1] A small folded handkerchief in a pocket of my pants (trousers) [2] light-duty knee-high compression stockings I wear to prevent DVT on long flights (interestingly enough, only one of my legs got flagged).
    – njuffa
    Mar 16 at 9:41
  • I got a quick back-pocket-area pat down once when I also forgot to remove my handkerchief from my jeans back pocket and it got detected on the scanner.
    – CitizenRon
    Mar 16 at 16:15
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    @RomaH They did, a mod just edited it out for some reason. Mar 17 at 21:38
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From the TSA official website:

Pat-down procedures are used to determine whether prohibited items or other threats to transportation security are concealed on the person. You may be required to undergo a pat-down procedure if the screening technology alarms, as part of unpredictable security measures, for enhanced screening, or as an alternative to other types of screening, such as advanced imaging technology screening. Even passengers who normally receive expedited screening, such as TSA PreCheck™ passengers, may at times receive a pat-down.

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender. TSA officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down. Please inform an officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched. You may request a chair to sit if needed.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.

This means the "frisking" itself, as you call it (official term is Pat-down), is legal, including touching the breasts.

However, offending you with personal insults is crossing a red line, and as you were advised in comments, you better submit a new complaint to TSA, hopefully you wrote down the name of the offending officer(s).

As for why you were "chosen" for pat-down many times we can't really know; Might be just coincidence, or something in your luggage that raise their suspicion.

Another possible triggers for pat-down, as others posted in comments:

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    When scanners first became a thing I raised my middle finger while being scanned a couple of times. Each time I was patted down. Yet at times I didn't do that I wasn't patted down.
    – Peter M
    Mar 15 at 12:38
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    @PeterM heh, you can't say you didn't deserve it lol. But doubt OP did the same. Personally I was never patted down, maybe I look too innocent. ;) Mar 15 at 13:16
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    I never get patted down unless I wear trousers with many layers of pockets. If I do, I get patted down every time, mostly in the area where those pockets are (and the female officer doing the patting did agree that those pocket areas did show up on the 'pay attention to this part' screen.) So it might be something in your bra or the skirt and what you are wearing under it that might have too many layers of fabric.
    – Willeke
    Mar 15 at 16:26
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    I hate the look, but I've taken to wearing sweatpants because there's nothing much to trigger them to aggressively poke at your testicles. Mar 15 at 18:46
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    From the quoted text: "as part of unpredictable security measures". i.e., sometimes it'll trigger no matter what you're wearing, even if you're wearing nothing at all. I believe there was another Q&A here about that and the answer indicated that this was the case. (I'd be most impressed if you made it all the way to the screening check point if you were wearing nothing at all, but that's a different questions for a different stack...)
    – FreeMan
    Mar 16 at 14:40
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Sorry to hear this is happening to you. :(

In order to be getting patted down every time, then something is causing the body scanners to trigger on that part of your body. As Azor Ahai's answer discusses, the body scanners highlight a region of your body where something was detected (or else give an ok that nothing was detected.) The agents will then pat down the area highlighted by the scanner. So, if it's consistently triggering on one part of your body, then there's something there that's triggering the scanners. Unlike metal detectors, due to the way these scanners work, this would generally have to be something on the outside of your body, such as your clothes or if you had some kind of prosthetic. Things like internal plates or rods, pacemakers, etc. should not trigger the body scanners.

So, if there's something on your shirt, bra, etc. that is especially dense and/or layered, this could be triggering the scanners. Trying different clothing options with fewer and/or less dense layers might solve the problem.

Another way to avoid this almost entirely is to get TSA PreCheck, as mentioned in the comments. As someone who travels somewhat frequently, PreCheck is great (compared to standard screening, at least.) No need to take off your shoes or light jacket. No need to take out your laptop and liquids bag. And, most relevant here, usually no body scanners (unless maybe you're at a rather small airport where they don't have a separate screening line.) PreCheck lines typically use only a metal detector for the vast majority of passengers, though they may still randomly send you through a scanner from time to time or if something triggers the metal detector.

As an additional bonus, the PreCheck lines are also usually much faster than the regular screening lanes. Even if the line itself is as long (which it usually isn't,) the line moves faster due to people not having to take off their shoes and walking through the metal detector being substantially faster than using the scanners.

Getting PreCheck by itself is $85 for 5 years, though many travel-focused credit cards include a credit that will reimburse this fee. If you travel internationally, then you might want to consider Global Entry instead, which includes PreCheck as well as providing expedited immigration control when entering the U.S. It is $100 for 5 years, though applying takes longer and is somewhat more of a hassle.

I would agree with some of the comments, though, that you may still want to complain to TSA. They are supposed to tell you what they are going to do prior to touching you if they need to conduct a pat-down for some reason.

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    Do you have any citation for the scanners being triggered by "generally have to be something on the outside of your body"? I'm pretty confident anatomical anomalies, provided they are externally detectable, can set them off too. A post pregnancy belly might well do it.
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 15 at 21:04
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    @Clumsycat Sorry if that wording was unclear. I meant for "outside of your body" to include the actual outside of your body itself. In other words, not internal stuff that isn't visible from the external shape of your body (e.g. surgical plates, rods, screws, pacemakers, etc.) The wavelengths used by the scanners generally will have little-to-no penetration of your skin (as opposed to, for example, x-rays or the metal detectors, which can detect stuff underneath your skin.)
    – reirab
    Mar 15 at 22:02
  • My mother's replacement knee triggers it from time to time (depending how sensitive the scanners are set, I guess)
    – Dragonel
    Mar 16 at 16:22
  • @Dragonel The body scanners? Or the metal detectors? Definitely metal detectors can pick up internal stuff like that (if it's made of metal.) Body scanners should normally only pick it up if it's changing the external shape of the body, though. I suppose a replacement knee could do that, but I'm not a medical expert of any sort, so not sure.
    – reirab
    Mar 16 at 17:01
  • The scanners. Although I guess that could've been baggy trousers at the knee to show something there, and then beeped by the metal wand.
    – Dragonel
    Mar 16 at 17:13
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One thing I've seen some airport TSA do here is to ensure you have all "removable" objects taken care of before you enter the scanner (as in they proactively asked me to remove items and place them into a container), presumably to reduce false positives. Specifically, I had to bin my

  • wallet
  • keys
  • watch

The general thing is the scanner detects any additional objects on your person. What I have found is if you empty your pockets and place any objects in your carry-on bag before you enter the scanner there's a far smaller chance you'll get any additional screening. It's easy to assume that this places your valuables at higher risk, but despite the chaos, it's not hard to keep tabs on your bags, and they typically make it through the scanner at about the same pace you do.

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  • Yep. There's often even a TSA agent standing around the screening lanes reminding people to empty their pockets. I'm just in the habit of shoving all of that stuff into my carryon before going through security. I don't go through the detector or scanner until my bag goes into the x-ray machine, then I just grab it as soon as it comes out.
    – reirab
    Mar 17 at 20:07
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Let's assume that you have taken everything out of your pockets etc. If you still get frisked often there is something that triggers the body scanner. That may well be your body, and you wouldn't be alone. There was a TSA report stating that

For example, the false alarm rate for passengers with a normal BMI was less than the false alarm rates for overweight and obese passengers. Additionally, the AIT-ATR system had a higher false alarm rate when passengers wore turbans and wigs.

(All this body talk is somewhat embarrassing and I couldn't care less about any of this but it simply is relevant to the question and the facts triggering it, so we'll look at this from a, say scientific standpoint of a visiting extraterrestrial to whom all our body shapes are utterly alien :-) .)

So. Yes, anything that's not a lean white crew cut male can trigger the scanner. If it's an alien (to the extraterrestrial) belly shape there is nothing you can do. If you wear any alien (to the extraterrestrial) clothing like a particularly sturdy bra with wires and stuff, or a body shaping undergarment, you can try to go with something less sturdy.

And yes, demand respect and do complain.

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    The main problem with turbans and wigs (or even some particularly voluminous hair styles, especially if dense braids are involved) is that they're often dense enough that they prevent scanning through them. There's nothing really that the scanner can do about that.
    – reirab
    Mar 16 at 18:28
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    I don’t quite understand this answer. I’ve been on dozens of flights and every scanner I’ve been through has highlighted denser matter — including wet or sweaty parts of clothing. Never my bulging abdomen.
    – WGroleau
    Mar 17 at 13:26
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    I'm also confused what being white has to do with anything. Are you saying that the scanners are designed by racists to catch non-whites more often?
    – Machavity
    Mar 17 at 13:27
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    @Machavity These kind of issues are often caused by the test-subjects/data used to test something not being representative (for example, consisting mainly of young white males). Not necessarily from racism by individual designers (but awareness of the issues this causes is very important).
    – user53923
    Mar 17 at 13:53
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    @Machavity To me the way it is currently written reads as "scanners are unfortunately unable to understand the natural variation in human bodies and clothing". But I cannot know for sure that that is what is meant.
    – user53923
    Mar 17 at 14:58

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