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Detective Sgt. Kevin Coffey
recalls pausing during a stakeout at Los Angeles
International Airport. "I was sitting in a
wheelchair and wearing a 'Will work for food'
sign -- my cover that day -- when I noticed a
family posing for pictures," Coffey says.
"I thought, 'How nice; they're about to go
off to different destinations, and they want a
memory of their time together.' "The next
day I was back, disguised as a janitor, and I
saw the same family lined up for photographs. I
thought, 'These people sure travel a lot.'
"When they showed up on the third day, I
knew something was wrong. I discovered that the
guy with the camera . . . was videotaping the
bank of pay phones over his family's -- rather,
his accomplices' -- shoulders. "Each time a
traveler punched in a credit-card number, he
recorded it. "We call it
Coffey has spent 19 years with the Los Angeles
Police Department trying to protect and educate
travelers about crime. He founded the
department's Airport Crimes Division in 1991.
While off duty, he tours the country giving
seminars on safe travel. "People understand
the importance of protecting their homes . . .
but when they go on vacation, they don't want to
think about crime," he told delegates at a
conference on travel fraud sponsored by the
American Society of Travel Agents. "They
want to relax, to lie on the beach. The problem
is, they put their head in the sand.
"At home, if someone knocks on your front
door, you always look to see who is there before
opening. But in a hotel room, if there's a knock
and a voice says, 'Housekeeping' or 'Room
service,' you'll take their word and open almost
every time." Compounding the traveler's
risk, Coffey says, is the fact that many
criminals are daring and innovative. Take
"mustard-stain bandits," he says.
"You're walking through an airport when
suddenly a man eating a hot dog bumps you and
spills mustard or ketchup on your clothes,"
Coffey says. "He immediately apologizes and
begins to try to wipe away the mess. Meantime,
you're flustered, and you put your briefcase or
purse or laptop computer on the floor to help in
cleaning off the mustard. "With your
attention diverted, another man picks up your
briefcase and walks away. It's all meticulously
Most airport crime is planned. "We deal
primarily with opportunity theft and distraction
thieves," says Capt. Mark Mancuso,
commander of a Houston Police Department
division at Intercontinental Airport.
"Opportunity thieves look for travelers who
enter a crowded area and put their valued
possessions . . . beside them or who leave them
unattended," Mancuso says.
"Distraction thieves follow someone to a
crowded checkpoint." "Crooks work in
teams at screening stations," Coffey says.
"One will position himself just outside the
security check. He's the quarterback. "You
place your hand luggage on the conveyor belt and
begin to walk through. The coins in your pocket
activate the alarm, and the security officer
asks you to empty your pockets. As you fumble to
comply, your bags continue through to the other
side, out of your sight. "The quarterback
sees this delay and alerts his fellow crooks
stationed beyond the checkpoint. One is carrying
an empty garment bag with one compartment
conveniently unzipped. Before anyone realizes
what is happening, he slides your purse into his
bag. And then he's gone."
In airports, hotels or any other public place,
travelers should recognize what appeals most to
criminals. "Five years ago, cameras were
the No. 1 target," Coffey says. "Now
it's laptop computers." Mancuso says
cell-phone theft is on the increase. Mancuso's
advice: Keep your possessions in sight at all
times and be aware of your surroundings.
"Try to act confident. Walk with a
purpose." Look people in the eye. Thieves
will do anything to avoid eye contact. They
don't want to be recognized. Don't be misled by
stereotypes, Coffey warns. "The majority of
travelers think of criminals as ill-kept,
scraggly individuals," he says. "But
in public places, their objective is to blend
Some common travel crime situations
Scene: Curbside check-in area.
Scheme: "Almost all skycaps are 100 percent
legitimate," says Houston police detective
Sgt. Kevin Coffey, but an honest skycap still is
a businessman. When you check your bag with him,
where does he put it? On a cart, usually with
lots of other luggage. And it stays there for
5-10 minutes, because he doesn't want to miss a
tip. "The skycap doesn't steal your bag. A
crook wearing an Armani suit -- a stolen Armani
suit -- comes along and takes it while the
skycap is servicing another customer."
Safeguards: "Keep your luggage in sight at
all times," Coffey says. "Make sure
you watch your bag go into the terminal."
Scene: The ticket counter.
Scheme: "When we stand in line, where do we
usually put our suitcases?" Coffey asks.
"Right beside us. Or behind us. Crook No. 1
on your right comes up and says, 'I've got to
get an upgrade right now. Can I move ahead?'
Crook No. 2 on your left creates another
commotion. You become irritated and distracted,
and Crook No. 3 walks off with your bag."
Safeguards: Keep your luggage directly in front
of you and in sight at all times. Be especially
aware during times of distraction.
Scene: Airport restroom.
Scheme: "A woman goes into the stall and
puts her purse on the hook placed high on the
back of the door. Then she turns her back on the
door and takes 5 to 12 seconds -- we've timed it
-- to take that paper reserved for a toilet seat
cover off the wall, poke holes into it and put
it on the seat. While she's doing this, the
crook in an adjacent stall is reaching over,
taking the purse off the hook and removing her
wallet." Men face a different risk, Coffey
says. "If we're in a bathroom stall, we can
literally get caught with our pants down. If our
wallet is in our pants, it's easy for a crook to
reach between stalls and remove it."
Safeguards: A woman should hang her purse around
her neck or put it on the floor securely between
her feet. Women and men should remove unneeded
credit cards and other valuables from wallets
even before leaving home. Make it as difficult
as possible for a criminal to gain access to
Scene: Airplane in flight.
Scheme: "Passengers assigned seats near the
rear of the plane board first and think they are
real smart when they put their hand luggage in
overhead bins near the front, so they don't have
to carry it as far," Coffey says.
"Then, when the plane lands and they get up
to leave, their bags are gone."
Safeguards: Limit the amount of carry-on
luggage. Place it beneath your seat and within
your sight or in the overhead bin directly
Scene: Arrival at destination airport.
Scheme: "People always are in a big hurry
to get to the baggage claim," Coffey says.
"And that usually involves going down an
escalator. Crooks love crowds. They prefer to
operate in places of transition. So this is a
popular working area for thieves." So is
the baggage claim area. "Thieves are known
to loiter in these locations and take unattended
property if not claimed right away. Many
airports no longer have security guards, because
it's an extra expense. "Crooks also like to
read uncovered tags and call you by name, as if
they know you. Distracted, your attention turns
away from your property as you converse with
this person, easily allowing an accomplice to
steal your property.
Safeguards: Keep your purse or other property in
front of you on escalators. Keep items secure.
Identify checked luggage promptly. "If you
do plan to check your luggage, use
privacy-oriented tags," Coffey suggests.
"Put ownership information inside the bag,
not just on the outside. Put an itinerary
inside, too. If your suitcase is damaged and the
handle comes off, your ownership and luggage
destination tag will be lost. By taping your
name and address in the inside of your luggage,
an airport employee will be able to return
Scene: Shuttle bus or van to rental-car
facility, airport hotel or parking lot.
Scheme: "The bus or van follows a regular
route around the airport," Coffey says.
"Let's say you board at Terminal 1. And the
driver puts your luggage at the rear of the
vehicle, out of your sight. At Terminal 2, a
lady boards. She gets off at the next stop. The
driver asks her which bags are hers, and she
points to your luggage. "Have you ever
heard a shuttle-bus driver ask, 'Are you sure
that's your bag?' Before you know what's
happened, she walks off with your bag, and you
never see her again."
Safeguard: Keep luggage with you whenever
possible. Watch carefully at every stop as the
driver distributes luggage.
By Harry Shattuck,
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