TSA Theft of Passenger Valuables a Nationwide Problem

Houston, you’ve got a problem. Every airport does, and it goes by a familiar name: TSA theft.

In the case of Houston, the problem was Transportation and Security Administration agent Karla Renee Morgan, who decided to augment her salary by helping herself to the contents of passengers’ luggage as it passed through her security checkpoint.

The solution for Houston Police was to lay a trap. An undercover cop turned a wallet containing $1,000 in marked bills in to Morgan, claiming he had found it. By a remarkable coincidence, when Morgan headed out at the end of her shift, authorities discovered an identical wallet with identically marked bills in her backpack. The “lost” wallet had never been turned in to airport lost and found.

The apprehension of Morgan, who has been charged with a misdemeanor crime, is a law enforcement coup. Or it would be if it weren’t such pitifully small potatoes in the world of TSA crime.

In 2009, a TSA screener at Newark Liberty International Airport by the name of Pythias Brown was sentenced to three years in federal prison on multiple counts of grand larceny. Known to eBay buyers as “Alirla,” Brown had run the largest one-man theft ring in the short history of the Transportation Security Administration, netting an estimated $400,000 via the resale of stolen high-priced electronics.

And even Brown represents just the tip of the iceberg. According to TSA records, press reports, and court documents, Brown is just one of some 500 TSA officers who have been fired or suspended for stealing from passenger luggage since the agency’s creation in November of 2001. The airports servicing New York City—John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty—harbor the most flagrant offenders, but virtually no city in the nation is safe from the TSA’s sticky fingers.

In 2009, a half dozen TSA agents at Miami International Airport were charged with grand theft after boosting an iPod, bottles of perfume, cameras, a GPS system, a Coach purse, and a Hewlett Packard Mini Notebook from passengers’ luggage. Travelers passing through the airport’s checkpoints reported as many as 1,500 items stolen, the majority of which were never recovered.

In May of this year alone, TSA agents were arrested on the suspicion of theft at airports in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

So what’s the TSA’s response? That the ratio of crooks to non-crooks within the agency is minuscule—less than one half of one percent. The agency’s blog even assigns concrete numbers: Out of more than 110,000 employees, 200 have been accused of stealing. Assuming (big assumption!) that 200 is the absolute number of thieves within the agency’s ranks, that’s still 200 chances to pass through airport security and come out on the other side minus your valuables. In the meantime, you can look forward to invasive pat-downs, potentially dangerous irradiation from scanners, and the knowledge that the agency has an iffy record when it comes to detecting legitimate threats. If that doesn’t make you feel all warm and cuddly when you fly, nothing will.

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