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I just flew back from the USA, and found a TSA notice in my suitcase that it had been inspected. I could tell that they checked a couple of items, but thankfully nothing was removed or damaged.

Now the interesting thing is, as far as I can recall, I locked my suitcase using the combination lock, and didn't use the key. When I opened the suitcase, the combination lock was unlocked, but the key locks were locked.

The suitcase is a common "Polo Club" type with a key-operated lock on each latch and a 3-digit combination lock in the middle. I already know the same key works with most of those suitcases, but I wonder how they opened the combination lock.

Edit: Here's a picture of the lock. It's not broken.

enter image description here

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    Is the case zippered? Any tool marks on or near the lock and latch? Any bent areas? Any pinholes that might be for a master key? – Freiheit Dec 1 '14 at 15:09
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    I can open one of those locks by feel in less than 10 seconds. I'm sure many TSA agents can do it even quicker... – Doc Dec 1 '14 at 15:53
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    @Doc really? Could you give more details? I tried and couldn't "feel" anything different except when completely unlocking it. – aditsu Dec 1 '14 at 16:14
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    @aditsu: google around for things like "combination lock picking". It can be done really quick once you have the feel for it (unless its a really good one, which I have never seen in a suitcase). It can be a fun pastime to rearrange bikes on the schools bike park space for easter... – PlasmaHH Dec 1 '14 at 23:09
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    They locked key locks which you hadn't set? That seems graver than opening the combination one (which they advise they can always do). How can they know for sure that you'll have the key when you get to your destination? – E.P. Dec 2 '14 at 11:00
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The TSA mandates that luggage can be opened without the owner's presence. Many suitcases therefore have special locks created by a company called Travel Sentry that are designed to be openable with some sort of code/master key. If your lock has a diamond logo like the one in this picture, it is one of those locks.

enter image description here

Image released under CC-BY-SA license by “Baggage Master”.

While I have never tried them personally, you can also find many videos with tricks to reset luggage locks (e.g. with lock-picking tools or by guessing the combination, see comments) and they are obviously not very strong. One way or the other, the TSA can therefore always open a suitcase if they decide to, the best you can hope for is that they don't damage your luggage in the process.

Although they don't quite say that directly, if they want to inspect a locked suitcase with a non-conforming lock, they would presumably simply break it open. So my guess is that either your lock could be reset/opened with some simple tools or you forgot to engage it and they didn't need to.


Googling for “Polo Pierre Riche”, it seems this range of suitcases does come with a TSA lock (even if the diamond logo is not visible on your picture) so the first hypothesis might the right one (although all the TSA locks I have seen do have a keyhole somewhere).

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    I confirm the last sentence about breaking the lock, personal experience. – Nean Der Thal Dec 1 '14 at 9:34
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    @adtisu Both variants exist (see also the Wikipedia article), the picture is there to show the diamond logo, nothing more. – Relaxed Dec 1 '14 at 10:24
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    I can't see any indication that this lock is special in any way. But whether or not it is, how do they actually open it? Do they have a special way to read the combination? Or some kind of device that automatically tries all combinations? – aditsu Dec 1 '14 at 11:19
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    @Relaxed: The "strangely shaped master keys" in that video are not master keys, but simple lockpicking tools. What the video is showing is not "here's what the TSA master key looks like", but that the locks are easy to pick. – Henning Makholm Dec 1 '14 at 12:58
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    Most cheap combination locks can be opened with a bit of patience and a bit of experience. If you put the first key in the right position, then the second key will often move a little bit easier. That would be polite method, they can use brute force instead and you'll need a new lock. – gnasher729 Dec 1 '14 at 15:01
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If your suitcase closes with a zip, then it can be opened with a normal biro (the ubiquitous cheap Bic office biro works particularly well). Simply hold the biro so it points along the zip, with the nib end pointing at an angle into the zip teeth. Then press down. The pen disengages the teeth of the zip, and you can pull them apart by running the pen or your finger along the zip. To reclose, simply pull the zipper over the opened part, and then back again. This works even on those suitcases with two zip pulls that lock together. Travel security like this method because it's fast, basically undetectable, and doesn't require any special tooling or any co-operation from the lock manufacturers.

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    I don't know what a "biro" is, but I know zippers can be opened with a pen. I'm not sure how obvious it is from the picture, but my suitcase doesn't close with a zipper. I hate those suitcases :p – aditsu Dec 1 '14 at 13:48
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    One of these pens is a classic example. In some countries they're referred to as "rollerball" pens, or just "bic", after the main manufacturer of the type. – anaximander Dec 1 '14 at 13:56
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    As per Wikipedia, a biro is a brand of ballpoint pens, that is used as a generic term in Britain and other countries. – Alexander Dec 1 '14 at 13:58
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    Actually, it's the surname of the guy who invented the ballpoint pen, László Bíró. They were known as Bíró pens, and were trademarked under that name. – anaximander Dec 1 '14 at 15:19
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    Just a note that where I'm from, "rollerball" is a movie and just "bic" means a lighter. Never heard "biro" before but when I hear "ballpoint" or just "pen" I think of a generic, well... ballpoint pen. – Calvin Scherle Dec 1 '14 at 17:36

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