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Travelers can be easy pickings for savvy criminals

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 shoulder-surfing."

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 planned."

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 in.

Some common travel crime situations

Curbside caper
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."

Check-in commotion
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.

Bathroom bandits
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 your pockets.

Carry-on crooks
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 above.

Baggage-claim blues
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 it."

Shuttle-bus surprise
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, HOUSTON CHRONICLE


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