Update, December 1: TSA sent me a certified letter constituting "final administrative action," denying my claim and telling me I can file a lawsuit if I disagree. Case finally closed, 7 months after I filed a claim.
Update, July 23: Delta finally replied to my lost item report. Summary: "Sorry! We can't find it."
Update, June 2: My computer is back! Scroll to the bottom for an update.
On Friday, May 20, I lost my $2,800 Apple MacBook Pro by following standard TSA security protocols at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I look back on the series of events that led to the lost computer with incredulity, and although all of the TSA staff and LAX airport police were courteous, I am still without my computer and am unsure whether or not I will be reimbursed for my loss.
Here’s what happened:
At 4:00pm on Friday, May 20, I was at the TSA security station at Delta Terminal 5, Lane 3. Per the standard (non-Pre) TSA process, I removed my 15.4” Apple MacBook Pro from my backpack and placed it in a bin. I removed my shoes and incidentals and placed them in a second bin. Behind me, I could hear a woman making a big scene because her “flight [was] at 4:15,” and her gigantic bag was clearly never going to fit on the airplane. She claimed multiple times that “the lady” told her she could bring it through security. At least 3 TSA agents were dealing with her as we moved closer to the x-ray machine, and most of the people in the area were watching the altercation.
I arrived at the entrance to the x-ray machine, pushed my 2 bags and 2 bins through, and stepped into the body scanner. When I stepped in, I realized that I had left my belt on, and went back to put it through the x-ray machine. I almost always fly using TSA Precheck so I’m accustomed to not removing my belt (and computer), but this particular airplane ticket was booked by a conference, so I was in the normal line. The body scanner line wasn’t long, so this put me 2-3 people between me and my original position. I emerged from the scanner without any problems, collected my 2 bags and incidentals, and proceeded into Terminal 5. After awhile, I looked into my backpack and realized that I didn’t have my computer. My heart skipped a beat! I turned around and rushed to the security area. During the walk back, I was thinking that I didn’t even remember seeing my computer on the belt when I collected my things, but I always assume that human memory is terrible, so I couldn’t be positive.
I arrived at the security area, flagged down a TSA agent, and told her that I must have left my computer there, but that I didn’t remember seeing it on the belt. She left to look around; I waited for about 5 minutes and never saw her again. I flagged down a second agent, who started looking again. Someone brought over a computer in a bag, but it was a Windows machine in a black case—not mine. Mine was nowhere to be found.
We moved over to the camera footage station, and a nice agent began to review archived camera footage. After a few minutes, he found me coming through the security line, and sure enough, my computer was not with my bags when I retrieved my belongings. Moving further back in time, we watched as a TSA agent pulled my computer off of the belt as soon as it came out of the machine—there is an area where agents can remove things from the belt before passengers have access to belongings. He moved my computer to a holding area immediately behind the x-ray machine. And then, we watched as the computer was inspected, after which it was handed back… to a random woman. The woman took my computer and left the security area. Someone remembered that the woman had been with the other woman who had been making the scene, and that they had both been rushing to the 4:15pm flight, but I couldn’t remember whether this was the case or not.
“She must have taken it while in a rush,” one of the agents said. OK, maybe. I was sort of speechless, disbelief pushing me past the point of anger, but I waited patiently for the next steps.
“We have to get the police involved.” 10-15 minutes later, 3 LAX airport officers showed up. By this point, it was already about 4:45pm—45 minutes after my computer had been taken. The officers were courteous and professional. They were briefed, studied the security footage, and after identifying the woman who had taken my computer, they proceeded down the terminal to look for her, using the 4:15pm departure as a reference point (even though we were already 30 minutes after the supposed departure). I continued to wait.
After about half an hour, the officers were back, with no computer, and with no additional information. I was due to board my delayed flight at 5:40pm, and it was already about 5:20pm. I stood around for awhile longer, wondering what to do. Finally, I asked the police for an incident report.
“Well, we don’t think there was a crime committed,” one of the officers said. “It looked like it was probably an accident."
I replied, “Sure, it might have been an accident… but I still don’t have my computer. If I need to file a claim, I’m going to need evidence."
After a few rounds going back and forth, one of the officers finally gave me an incident number (the main officer I was dealing with clearly didn’t want to do anything, since it “wasn’t a crime.” After I received my incident number, one of the officers asked the TSA supervisor whether they could archive the camera footage.
“I think the footage is saved for 90 days,” the TSA supervisor said.
The officer turned to me. “Can you file your claim and have it all resolved within 90 days?”
After getting my police incident number, I waited patiently for the TSA supervisor to do something, and after nothing happened, I asked, “How do I get a TSA incident number?"
He replied that he was going to file the claim, “probably tonight."
I asked whether my personal information would be helpful as part of that process. Yes, he said, and finally took down all of my information, writing it on the back of a folded piece of paper. He directed me to file a claim at tsa.gov, and told me to reference the location (Lane 3, Terminal 5, LAX) and time (4:00pm), and that they would be able to match it up.
There wasn’t much more I could do, so I left, boarded my flight, and arrived back in San Francisco missing a $2,800 computer. Luckily, I am meticulous about encryption and about backing up, so I don’t think I lost any data nor gave anyone else access. I used “Find my iPhone” to trigger my computer to lock itself, make a sound, and display a message containing my contact information if it were to be connected to the internet, but I wasn’t feeling very good about the process because it can be hard for a layperson to connect a locked Apple computer to a network (assuming they were the honest and helpful type to begin with). I normally allow for Guests to login to my computers exactly for this scenario, but I didn’t remember whether I had done this with my relatively-new MacBook Pro.
It’s been 2.5 days, and my computer has not yet surfaced. I filed a claim with TSA, and am waiting to see what happens. If they do not send me a check for replacement cost, I will be extremely upset. After following TSA security protocols, TSA gave my $2,800 computer away to another passenger whom they were unable or unwilling to identify and track down.
I’m wondering why more steps weren’t taken to help me to get my belongings back. There is video evidence that they totally screwed up and gave my computer to the wrong passenger. No effort was made to associate my computer, which was right next to my bags, to the owner of the bags. After seeing the video showing them to be at fault, the LAX airport police didn’t take the investigation seriously, stating instead that it “didn’t look like there had been a crime committed.”
I should note again that all TSA staff and LAX airport police I corresponded with during this process were courteous. They didn’t treat me poorly at any point in time, but in the end, I was still left without my computer.
Here are a couple theoretical courses of action that might have helped:
- They seemed pretty sure that this woman was getting on a 4:15pm flight—so sure, in fact, that the police offers contacted Delta to identify the flight and then went to the gate from which that flight left. Why not try to contact the airplane or the destination airport to have an announcement made to those passengers, in case the person actually took my computer on accident and was willing to return it?
- They could have traced events back a bit further in time. The woman who took my computer was only a few people behind me in line. TSA have a record of me scanning my boarding pass, and presumably, they could get a list of, say, the 10 people who scanned a pass after me at the same station. This would allow TSA and/or the LAX airport police to identify the woman who took my computer by name, with high certainty. We have her on video taking my computer, and matching a picture up to an identity should be trivial.
- UPDATE: I'm told by friends that the ticket scanner is "dumb," and doesn't log. WOW—I'm actually surprised that this isn't logged information!
Unfortunately, I think that the only recourse, at the moment, is to file a claim with the TSA (which I have already done). I really hope that TSA takes full responsibility and writes me a check for giving my computer away. I also hope that they think about how to enact a better system for associating personal property with the right passenger. At some other airports, each bin has an ID number put into it, and an ID card is handed to the passenger who places his or her items into that bin.
TSA, please make this right. I'm standing by.
- For safety, personal devices like notebook computers and phones should always be encrypted. Just imagine a scenario in which someone malicious gained access to your data. Even if they only had access to your email account(s), they could reset bank and credit card passwords and effectively steal your identity. If you're on a Mac, you should enable FileVault encryption. Don't even think about it—do it now. The only situation in which you'll suffer is if you have an older Mac that uses a spinning disk, in which case your computer's performance might drop below the threshold of acceptability. But those of you who have newer Macs that use SSDs shouldn't notice too much of a drop in performance. FileVault can take many hours to encrypt your drive, and it does so in the background when your Mac is plugged into power.
- Your computers and mobile devices should always be backed up. For most Mac users, Time Machine works well, and using something like an Airport Time Capsule on your network at home makes things really easy (and automated). If you're often connected to fast internet connections, you can also use a cloud-based backup service like CrashPlan. I've had good luck with Crashplan for non-RAID volumes under about 2TB, but a friend of mine recently had a CrashPlan failure when trying to recover lost data.
- Set a custom lock screen / login window message that includes your contact information.
- Many friends wrote in to tell me that I should put stickers on my computer or keep them in TSA-approved computer bags when I go through security. It's hard for me to mar the lovely design of the MacBook Pro, but I might do this to help make my (new) computer unique.
Tue, May 24: The woman who has my computer just called! My name and contact information showed up on the login screen when she opened it. I'm so relieved. (No thanks to TSA, Delta Airlines, or LAX airport police processes.) She described the situation as soon as we connected by phone, and it matched what we saw in the security footage. I hope the computer makes its way home!
Thu, June 2: My computer is back! I am so amazed and grateful that the woman who took my computer mailed it back to me. Many people have been asking why she took the computer, but I didn't want to write anything about her until I had the computer in my hands. Here is what she told me:
She was with her friend. Her friend had the same computer (which we saw on the video). Her friend ran off to hold the plane at the gate. She thought her friend left her computer. Sat in a diff section of plane so couldn't communicate with her friend (so didn't know she had a duplicate computer), and flew to New York. Discovered the extra computer when they landed. 4 days later, got back to LA, and finally had time to open the computer and investigate, and saw my contact info on the login screen.
That's her story, and it seems to match what we saw on the footage. As a busy guy myself, I can understand that it might take days to really dig into something, especially in a case where there aren't any obvious identity markings on a found object (and if you aren't a computer person and don't know how to dig further).
Anyway, she took it to a UPS Store and used my UPS account to ship it to my home. I had to create a Venmo account to send her $19 to buy a UPS Store laptop shipping box, but the box turned out to be very slick and effective—the computer hangs in the box and doesn't get knocked during rough handling. It arrived safely, and if back in my hands.
Amazingly, this story ended well, but the only reason it did is that I set a custom lock screen message that included my contact info. If you are running OS X, I highly recommend that you do the same! (instructions)
When I opened my computer and it connected to my network, all of my alerts went nuts and the computer locked itself, requiring a pin to unlock.
Apple does this stuff well, but I need to remember to leave a guest account active so people can login and connect to networks when computers are lost and/or stolen...
July 23, 2016: Delta wrote me an email today telling me that they closed my case. Here's the email:
From: email@example.com <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sat, Jul 23, 2016 at 1:42 PM
Subject: Delta Air Lines Lost Item Report Number [XXXXXX]
To: [Eric Cheng]
Despite our best efforts we have not been able to locate any item that closely matches the description of your reported lost article and have officially closed your report. We do recommend you notify your data carrier of your lost item to protect yourself from unauthorized access.
We are grateful for your business and we hope to welcome you onboard a Delta Air Lines flight again soon.
Delta Air Lines Lost Item Recovery Team
December 1, 2016: TSA sent me a certified letter constituting "final administrative action," denying my claim and telling me I can file a lawsuit if I disagree. Case finally closed, 7 months after I filed a claim.
Thanks for nothing, I guess?