53

"They don't check that it's yours at the door"? According to the mouse-over text for this XKCD comic strip:

That's scary. I wonder what are the chances of getting your luggage stolen (from the conveyor belt, not lost by the airways company).

  • 20
    I have had my luggage checked that it matched my ticket at least once. It's rare, and this was many years ago, but it happens sometimes at some airports. – Greg Hewgill Mar 5 '15 at 19:05
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    The link provided in the question directs to a comic about fire insurance policy and not related to travel or luggage. Is it correct? – gmauch Mar 5 '15 at 19:05
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    @gmauch: No, the link is right. It's about "life hacks." Just hover the mouse over the cartoon to see the text quoted by me. – Quora Feans Mar 5 '15 at 19:13
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    @QuoraFeans, Ok, now I got it! – gmauch Mar 5 '15 at 19:19
  • I've seen at least one place where all is checked: Chicago Union Station. With the significant distinction that the baggage area is in a downtown location where many travellers pass through every day. – gerrit Mar 5 '15 at 23:10

10 Answers 10

20

Deterrence instead of prevention

Many common practices in airports won't prevent a passenger from committing the theft, however they would be very good at identifying the thief afterwards. Airports tend to have full coverage of high quality video monitoring, they can backtrace a person in video to their plane, and they are rather sure about the identity of passengers on every airplane.

In essence, you'd leave behind video evidence that proves the crime and also your ID and address - there is a very high risk of getting caught that would generally outweigh the benefit of getting a suitcase full of clothing and my toothbrush, and if someone would intend to do it repeatedly, then it's not realistic to remain undetected.

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    "also your ID and address": not if this is a typical domestic airport with nothing stopping random people from walking in. – jpatokal Mar 6 '15 at 0:48
54

It depends on where you are and how you're travelling. If you need to pass through customs then the baggage collection area is typically closed to all but travellers, so requires forethought and an outlay of a flight to gain access.

However in some circumstances, i.e. domestic flights, definitely in Australia and the U.S. amongst others, the statement is absolutely true. You can walk into baggage collection from outside and just pick up a bag and walk off.

The chances of getting something worthwhile instead of just some dirty clothes versus the chances of getting caught is presumably low enough to deter thieves, otherwise we'd see many more cases of it when it's possible.

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    +1 Another thing to note is that sometimes clothes are exactly what the thief is after. I recall reading articles about the Atlanta airport having problems with homeless people coming in and stealing clothes from bags in the baggage claims. – reirab Mar 5 '15 at 21:13
  • Having not done a conclusive survey, I also suspect that baggage collection is moved to an "arrivals only" area in those areas where theft of this kind is most likely to be rife, which mitigates the threat. – dlanod Mar 5 '15 at 21:35
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    I've heard of some airports doing that (another post here mentions Detroit, for example,) but the vast majority of U.S. airports that I've been to don't do that. There is often a security guard around who can watch for such things, though. – reirab Mar 5 '15 at 21:40
  • @reirab so giving old clothes for free to homeless would solve the issue, but I suppose, the govs hasn't got that idea? – Danubian Sailor Mar 6 '15 at 9:32
  • Plus there are no cameras in airports, so you won't get caught. – alanh Mar 6 '15 at 17:40
38

Yes they don't check it. Why there isn't more theft? This has been discussed on Metafilter and I think this comment sums it up:

The simple answer is that there's no way to know that the owner of the bag you're taking isn't standing right next to you. Throw in all the security measures nearby, and any thinking thief is going to prefer shoplifting or purse-snatching.

However, note Alleged baggage thief arrested after raiding YVR 4 times, police say.

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    US or Canada domestic makes this a real problem. Much less so in Europe, agreed. – chx Mar 5 '15 at 20:11
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    That and the fact that the vast majority of suitcases are going to contain nothing but old dirty clothes of most likely zero value (though I suppose it's possible the suitcases themselves could be worth something...) – neminem Mar 5 '15 at 20:56
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    @neminem I would guess that about half the suitcases will contain clean clothes, since about half the travelers will be finishing their outbound flight instead of their return flight. – phoog Mar 5 '15 at 21:24
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    Not that much of a deterrent for a skilled social engineer. Just tell "Oops, sorry, I thought it was mine." with an honest looking face and move on. However, I guess that skilled social engineers can make much more money in other areas than by stealing dirty laundry. – vsz Mar 5 '15 at 22:22
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    @chx In Europe there are also airports where one can get from the street to the carousels. For example, Luleå, Kiruna, Bodø. Scheduled flights there are only domestic or within the EEA. – gerrit Oct 4 '16 at 10:38
19

It's not that scary actually. To be in the arrival hall, you usually need to be traveller or find some way to go around airport security. The rightful owner of the bag is probably around too, as are many other people, and law enforcement personnel. And then you often have to walk through customs where you could be stopped or interrogated, without even knowing if there is something to declare in the bag. Even without anybody actively monitoring, showing up regularly and not looking the part could increase the risk of being caught.

Of course, there are some places (e.g. domestic terminals in the US) where some of this does not hold and a fellow traveller could also just grab a bag everywhere. But even if you are inclined to steal a bag, you need to be lucky and to have local contacts to offload anything worth your while. And as others also mentioned, some airports do occasionally check luggage tags at the exit. All in all, not the most welcoming environment for a criminal.

The thing is also that before ending on the conveyer belt, your bags spent hours in airport facilities to which hundreds of people have access. Even if you would expect some level of vetting and monitoring, the sheer volume of luggage and number of airports in the world means security often won't be very good. So employees can and do steal bags and at some airport theft can become a serious issue (at least temporarily until the authorities crack down on it). In comparison, the conveyer belt isn't such a huge issue.

Finally, there are countries (OK, Switzerland) where newspapers or vegetables are simply left on a table or similar device on the streets and people are expected to leave money behind if they take one. It won't work everywhere or in any context but generally speaking we do rely to a larger extent than we might believe on social norms and plain old honesty rather than exclusively on incentives and technical enforcement measures.

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    Not all of this is applicable for, say, domestic air travel in the US. Baggage claim is outside security, and you can get there directly from the street (in fact it's usually right by the airport's entrance/exit doors, for convenience). Being domestic, there is no customs. – Nate Eldredge Mar 5 '15 at 19:25
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    @NateEldredge Thanks! I must admit I am not really knowledgeable about the situation in the US. I have been there but not often and the stats and stories I remember are mostly about Europe. I added a few adverb to make that clearer. I do think the general theme still holds, even if the details do vary a lot across the world obviously. – Relaxed Mar 5 '15 at 19:39
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    @O.R.Mapper All possible I guess but my “home” airport (Schiphol) is very large indeed and still I usually have to wait for my luggage and I am never alone. Maybe some airports have less efficient passport checks or better luggage handling but it's never a sure thing. Even if some people aren't there yet and you could conceivably watch to see if a given bag makes several rounds, you can't count on the owner not being there. – Relaxed Mar 5 '15 at 20:50
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    Note also that it doesn't have to be a fellow traveler at all. As O.R. Mapper points out, in domestic terminals, the baggage claims are usually right beside the doors. Several airports in the U.S. have had problems with homeless people coming in and stealing bags off the conveyors, especially in the airports that have direct train access to the terminal. – reirab Mar 5 '15 at 21:04
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    @reirab I think it's Nate who mentioned this. It's mostly true of the US (and Australia, according to another answer), not necessarily everywhere. – Relaxed Mar 5 '15 at 21:06
17

For what it's worth, there are some airports where they do check. In particular, for domestic flights in Japan, they often (but not always) have people at the exit who verify that you've got a bag tag from check-in that matches the tag on the baggage you're taking out. Air Do:

Upon arrival of destination, confirm your "baggage claim tag" by yourself. Please make sure not to pick up baggage of another person by mistake. Please hand the baggage claim tag to the clerk at the Arrivals exit gate.

Anyway, the easiest precaution to guard against this is to have wacky-colored baggage, instead of those ubiquitous black bags. My family's usual travel bag is a lovely neon green number, which not only makes it easy to spot on the conveyor belt, but also makes it difficult for a thief to credibly pull off the "I'm sorry, I thought that was mine" routine.

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    You suggested the wacky colored bags before I do, I was gonna suggest that. No one wants to steal a bag and grabs people's attention. Another trick which I see some passengers with black bags do is putting a large wacky colored sticker on both sides, this will work for hard shell bags. – Nean Der Thal Mar 6 '15 at 1:41
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    +1, it happened to me in Japan (or Seoul, not sure).Security noticed that my baggage was tagged as being under my friends name (airline mismatched our luggages when we dropped them together). They tried to stop me, and I had to ask my friend who was next to me to clear me out. The clerk working with him didn't noticed he had my baggage tho... – Antzi Mar 6 '15 at 7:22
  • Both times I've been into Mexico City they've checked it. I particularly remember the first time: they checked the tag and then removed it from my bag. I then went to the bureau de change I could see near the exit, got some pesos, and joined the queue to leave, whereupon a different person tried to check it and gave me hassle for not having the tag on the bag. – Peter Taylor Mar 6 '15 at 17:50
  • Lugage tags are also checked at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – leo Mar 7 '15 at 12:50
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    @leo - is that before or after they check to see if you're smuggling vowels into the country? – Dave Mar 9 '15 at 14:31
11

In some airports, the luggage tag on your luggage is checked against the copy typically affixed to your ticket, by airport personnel. This is exceptional, however.

So, although the chances of random passengers taking other people's luggage intentionally are small, it's definitely possible in many airports.

If I would have nefarious intentions, I would fly with a nondescript, common, piece of luggage, stuffed with cheap second hand clothing, then pick another, similar looking bag, from the conveyor belt upon arrival. This way, I could apologise for 'mistakingly' picking the wrong bag, if caught.

That said, if you're packing anything in your checked in luggage that you can't lose and is not insured (and many things aren't when packed in checked in luggage), you probably should pack differently.

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    I was surprised when they did this in Kazakhstan, and actually sort of liked it. Lower number of passengers there than, say, at Chicago or Miami. – Wayne Mar 6 '15 at 14:37
  • Checking bags against baggage claim receipts is sometimes done in at least some airports in the USA. I recall periods in the past when baggage claim receipts were checked consistently at some airports (like Boston), but nowadays they seem to be checked sporadically, at most. Perhaps the airlines respond to thefts by upping security in the baggage pickup. Using distinctive looking luggage is a good idea. – Yehuda_NYC Mar 6 '15 at 14:51
6

Thieves aren't mindless stealing zombies. They are probably a lot like you and me, mostly rational, just jerks.

So to understand why a baggage claim is safe, you have to think like a thief. Assuming you're not into burglary, the recipe is simple:

  1. Go somewhere where you fit in.
  2. Watch for someone who's alone or otherwise impaired.
  3. Wait for him/her to be vulnerable: distracted, drunk, separated from their things, etc.
  4. Make the grab and walk off casually.

This is what you do at a beach, at a concert, at a park, bus terminal, etc. This is how you pickpocket someone, how you mug someone, and the core formula for a myriad of scams travelers fall for.

The key element of all this is that you must pick your target carefully. An airport is the worst place in the world to do this, since you never know whose stuff you're stealing. Worse, whoever it is they are (generally) sober, and probably aren't very distracted by anything other than finding the same bag you're trying to steal.

In the end the problem with airports is that you can't see people when they drop off their bag. Even if you were somehow crafty enough to post people on the other end of the flights, which flight would it be? Given the amount of planning required, you'd be better off breaking into a house.

4

I don't know if it is still true, but when I lived in Detroit the baggage claim area was sectioned off. After you got your bags, you had to pass by a guard and show your bag stub(s) matched your bag(s).

I haven't been to Detroit in a long time, so this practice may have changed.

  • The Delta (biggest) terminal at Detroit Metro has no such restrictions, and hasn't for at least the past 13 years. I am less confident before then, but I don't remember ever seeing it there, first flew from it in 1986. I haven't used the (much smaller) Detroit City airport, which doesn't appear to have commercial flights any longer. – Dan Pritts Mar 6 '15 at 18:40
1

For a German like me, most of the time they did not check my luggage when I left the German airport.

They did not check the tags in the US a couple of years ago, either.

However, they might inspect "your" belongings closer for customs, asking what you are bringing into the country and might notice when the tags show names other than yours, which happened to me in the US and Australia.

I cannot tell whether they really compared the tags, though, but in the end, that same xkcd "fact" is the same thought I've always had when leaving the aircraft.

This is why I always hurry to pick up my luggage.

It once happened to me in Germany that someone took my stuff, but at least they were honest and probably wanted to get theirs back (there was exactly one trolley left on the conveyor belt; wasn't mine), so few days after, airport staff brought me mine right to my home.

Regarding customs, if you go to customs and ask if you are allowed to bring (some legal stuff, e.g. a cake), they usually think you're honest enough to let you through.

1

The answer is yes. I know a person who took someone else's bag by mistake (they looked almost the same). He only realized when he arrived home (3 hours later) and opened the suitcase. No one asked anything, the owner didn't notice him taking the suitcase at the belt, and no questions were asked on exit. He had to return later to bring is the case and take his own. Of course this is a particular situations and it's possible that checks change from airport airport.

Having this said, I don't think it's a big problem else aiports would control it more. There are several aspects that dissuade luggage being stolen:

  • It starts with the fact that it's a reserved area. Hardly someone will buy a ticket to stole something without knowing the value (luggage is potentially low value - I always keep valuable things with me and I believe most of the people do the same)
  • Than you may be stopped at customs. I doubt someone wants to explain why he has someone elses bag.
  • The owner is around and waiting for his luggage
  • There is security and cameras and he/she may be later easily identified

I don't think the risk is null but it's probably neglectable.

protected by RoflcoptrException Mar 8 '15 at 2:30

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