When we think of pickpockets overseas, we often think of train stations, tourist attractions and bustling city streets as high-risk areas to watch out for. However, there’s a new place emerging as a favourite hunting ground of opportunistic thieves, and it’s costing unlucky travellers.
In-flight theft is expensive, upsetting and increasingly common. Thieves have recognised that travel-weary passengers are easy targets while flying, and that mid-flight naps and toilet breaks are the perfect opportunities to strike. But above all, they see that just about every passenger is flying with cash or some sort of electronic device, whether it be an expensive laptop, camera or phone in their carry-on bag.
So how can passengers guard their gear and avoid falling victim to in-flight theft? We look into situations to avoid, simple strategies to protect your valuables, and technology that can help you win the fight against thieves.
How common is in-flight theft?
It’s easy to assume that your valuables are safe from thieves once you’ve taken off. After all, would a pickpocket really risk being caught in the act with nowhere to escape?
The surprising reality is that in-flight theft is more common than you’d expect. And unfortunately, victims often only discover their missing valuables after jumping in a taxi to leave the airport. But even when they notice something missing while up in the air, there isn’t always an easy solution.
Take this couple from Auckland who was robbed of more than $4,000 cash from their carry-on bag. In this case, the pair noticed the missing money while they were still mid-flight and alerted the cabin crew. Every passenger on board had their passport photographed and their seat searched, however the money wasn’t found and passengers were ultimately let off the plane.
If you think $4,000 is a lot of money to be taking onto the plane, consider this Turkish businessman who reported $260,000 worth of cash and jewellery was stolen from his carry-on bag in the overhead compartment.
In-flight theft happens on planes all around the world. It’s up to passengers to protect themselves and their valuables, but where can you start?
Five times your carry-on luggage is at risk
Imagine boarding your final flight home after a round-the-world adventure. You’re tired, road-worn and ready to sink into your plane seat and doze off while watching in-flight movies. Thieving passengers are the last thing on your mind.
It’s easy to see how travellers let their guard down while flying, whether they’re exhausted, distracted or nervous. However, there are a few in-flight risks that passengers should keep at the front of mind to keep their valuables safe.
A lot of travellers pride themselves on their ability to sleep on the plane. While this ability can come in handy on those long-haul flights, sleeping passengers are prime targets for opportunistic thieves.
In fact, multiple passengers on a flight to Dubai reported missing belongings after waking from their mid-flight naps. A group of men were found to have waited for passengers to fall asleep, then stolen cash from bags in the overhead compartment, stashing it skillfully in the plane lavatory.
It’s unreasonable to say that you should never fall asleep while flying, but if you do, ensure your valuables are locked securely in your carry-on bag and any smaller electronics are also accounted for. Alternatively, considering keeping your travel documents and cash on your person at all times with a travel wallet worn around your neck, beneath your shirt.
2. Visiting the Bathroom
How many times have you left an expensive item on your plane seat while visiting the bathroom? Locking your valuables in a carry-on bag in the overhead compartment every time you leave your seat is inconvenient, so it’s easy to see why toilet breaks are another prime opportunity for thieves.
However, leaving valuables unattended is never recommended, so take smaller items like phones with you to the bathroom whenever possible.
If you have a larger item like a laptop computer, ask the passenger next to you to keep an eye on it for you. Even if they are the would-be thief, they may think twice knowing that you have your belongings at front of mind.
3. Stowing bags under the seat
What better invitation for theft than placing your carry-on at the toes of a pickpocket? Stowing your bag under the seat is an easy way to tempt opportunists, especially when compartments aren’t secured with luggage locks.
Anti-theft bags made from slash-proof durable material are great lightweight carry-on options, and when accompanied with luggage locks, they pose a challenge to pickpockets.
4. Leaving overhead bags unlocked
We often forget that overhead compartments are shared spaces, so fellow passengers have easy access to your bag throughout the duration of the flight. As such, it’s important that your bag remains locked at all times.
If you’ve forgotten your luggage locks, stow your bag in the overhead compartment upside down with the bag openings facing away from the overhead locker door. It’s a simple but effective way to deter thieves, who would have to pull your bag out of the compartment to access the zips.
5. Disembarking the plane
The plane has taxied to a stop and everyone is eager to stretch their legs and get on with their journey - disembarking can be a frantic time. With bodies and bags crammed into the aisle, it also presents an opportunity for thieves to strike while passengers are distracted.
Keep your carry-on bag at your front while shuffling down the aisle and ensure you haven’t left anything on your seat. An aircraft cleaner in a United States airport has revealed the staggering volume of valuable electronics that passengers leave behind, not all of which is reported to lost and found.
How to avoid airport thefts
Unfortunately, getting your bags off the plane in one piece is only half the battle. Airports themselves are a hotbed for scammers and pickpockets, who take advantage of tired and distracted travellers. Brazen thieves have even been known to hover around the luggage carousel, then calmly wheel a bag out of the airport.
Clearly marking your bag with an easily-identifiable tag or ribbon isn’t just an easy way to spot your bag early. It also helps you to notice when that bag being wheeled out of the airport isn’t just another black suitcase - it’s yours.
Other airport scams to watch out for include:
- People stalling at security checkpoints while their accomplice accesses your bag on the other side
- Fake baggage helpers who offer to carry your heavy luggage to the taxi stand
- Airport staff planting prohibited items in your bags and demanding you pay a fine
- Being deliberately shortchanged by currency converters
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