Theft, TSA and Blind Faith

On Saturday, January 5, 2013, our family checked in at the airport for our United Airlines flight 194 to Maui. We dutifully weighed our bags to make sure they weren't too heavy and passed them over to the airline, never wondering about the safety of the contents. Later that evening, Pamela was unpacking her suitcase in our hotel room when she discovered that her MacBook Air was missing. The power cord was there, but no computer. There was a nice little tag notifying us that our luggage had been searched by TSA Agent #5414 in San Francisco. Well, according to Pamela, Agent #5414 had stolen her MacBook Air, but had left the power cable behind in the suitcase.

Secretly, the kids and I were pretty convinced that we were going to find the MacBook waiting for us on our bed at home where the suitcase was packed. But Pamela was firm so I went online to find out how to report a theft by TSA. There is a nice helpful phone number, but a call to that number just asks you to leave a message. She dutifully left a detailed message including all of the information about flight, Agent #5414 and what was stolen. Online, there was a form that you have to fill out to file a claim with TSA. After reading it over, we realized that it wasn't simple and certainly not something we could do while on vacation since you need original receipts and other "documentation". We abandoned this particular task and decided to handle all of this when we got home.

Before we dropped the subject entirely, I remembered that when I set the computer up, I linked its "Find My Mac" to my Apple ID. So, using my iPhone, I tried to locate the machine which, of course, was "off line." Not to be deterred, I went ahead and asked apple to notify me if the machine was located and to send it a "lock" code if it does. I stopped short of sending the computer a "Wipe" command because, after all, it probably never *really* made it into the suitcase.

It is a bit jarring when you realize that something has been stolen from you. There were a few thoughts that ran through my mind. The first was disbelief; surely the machine is just sitting at home waiting for us to return. The second was amazement that there are people in the world who steal. Not just anyone but a TSA agent who, theoretically, is being monitored by video surveillance and has to actually walk out of their place of work with something out of a traveller's suitcase. On top of that, this agent had to put a little slip in the suitcase telling us that Agent #5414 did the deed.

On closer inspection, the tag that notified us of the inspection had the agent number written in by hand. I know that thieves aren't smart, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to maybe just write in some other random number on the tags that you place in suitcases you steal from. If this truly is their system than maybe I need to rethink my ideas that TSA has any anti-theft processes in place. Maybe there is NO video surveillance and maybe there is no check when they leave work to make sure they aren't carrying valuables home.

We kept the tag, our boarding passes and went on about our vacation. When we returned home a week later the first place I went was upstairs to check on the bed. Neatly made, and empty.  Now we knew for sure; TSA stolen Pamela's MacBook.


The Infamous TSA Inspection Slip

The Infamous TSA Inspection Slip

And, we weren't alone. If you want some interesting reading, do a quick google search. In fact, so many people do this search, that here is what google shows you when you type "tsa th"...



If you've been reading my blog, you will know that at the end of January, I went to the Giants Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ. One evening I was diligently writing a blog post when two emails came in. The first told me that Pamela's MacBook Air had been found. The second told me that it had been successfully "locked". The first message had a neat little Map showing a house in a dense neighborhood in Milpitas with a blue dot indicating the MacBook's location. Now we really know that it was stolen and that it was still within a day's walk of San Francisco Airport. And we know where the thief lives, or do we?

Apple laptops and desktop machines don't have GPS chips. How they figure out where they are in the world is a bit of a mystery. Apple tells you that it uses known WiFi access points and other information to approximate the location of the machine. Lest you think that this can't be very accurate, you are wrong. It is eerie and if you want to read about it, check out Skyhook's How it Works page.

It is amazing how little law enforcement agencies care about petty theft. At work we have had numerous occasions to try to get police involved in situations only to be thwarted at every turn. First, there is the jurisdictional problem. The theft occurred at San Francisco Airport. The loss wasn't discovered until we were in Hawaii. And, the party that "suffered the loss" (us) is located in a town 90 miles north. Finally, the machine is in yet another city. Trust me, whoever you call will tell you that you need to call someone else.

We experienced this at work when somebody took one of our checks and used them to make their personal checks with our account and routing numbers on it.  So, basically, they would write a check, but when it got to the bank and the machine read those funny little numbers on the bottom of the check, it would take money out of our corporate bank account.    Simple, effective and almost impossible to stop (don't try this at home.)

The first one of these that came through was for an online porn site.    In hindsight, I think that the thieves were just testing the account number before actually forging their new checks.  Nothing we could do about that but cancel our new subscription.  Then came a charge at an Emeryville Walmart.  We found it as soon as the check cleared, and a call to the bank quickly reversed the charge. 

This happened a few times so we decided to call the police.  From the checks that had cleared, we had an address in Emeryville, so we called the Emeryville Police Department.  They told us to call our local police department because the loss was suffered in their jurisdiction.  So, I sat with an officer and went over all the fraudulent charges.  Then he asked if we were out any money.  Of course the bank reversed all the charges so we were fine.  That means the party who suffered the "loss" wasn't in their jurisdiction either.    He told me we had to report it to the individual stores were the checks were passed.  They were spread around in different cities and we gave up. 

This is a complete failure of our law enforcement system.  Petty crime to be sure, but still crime.

This time instead of calling the police, our intrepid IT Manager, Scott,  got the call.  I had kept him in the loop about all of this and he was convinced that we could get the machine back. I only had one condition.  Whatever we did has to be anonymous. I didn't want to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the house saying "You are a thief!" So, he devised this convoluted solution that involved using the local UPS store, a helpful staff, and a lot of luck.

One morning, I went with him to the UPS store with a box. Inside the box was packing material, including strapping tape to reseal the box, and a note. The note basically said "You have our laptop. Put it back in the box and return it to a UPS store and we won't call the police." He also created a throwaway gmail address so the thief could contact him anonymously.

I humored him through this process. First, I didn't believe for a minute that the MacBook Air's location was good enough to pin point an exact street address in a neighborhood. Second, I didn't think that any self-respecting thief would actually follow our instructions. I was wrong on both counts. Kinda.

We anxiously tracked the package's arrival the next day. A few hours later, Scott received the following email:

  To whom it may concern:

I bought a Macbook air on craigslist. When I met the guy he told me he had suddenly lost the charger and so he'd drop the price from $750 to $650. He told me there wasn't a password, so after inspecting it including turning it on, etc. It looks like a 2012 model and according to the seller he bought it only couple of months old. It looked legit at the time. By looking at the mac book it looks pretty new. I gave him the cash and went home. When I got home I tried to create a new account, suddenly it was a password in the system preference it was locked.  I tried contacting the seller and he hasn't responded. I tried calling him back but the number is disconnected. I had no idea it was a stolen until I received your letter. So I am returning laptop. Hopefully you will be able to return it to the owner.

The next day we picked the MacBook Air up from the local UPS Store. It was in perfect shape and, after unlocking it, had all of our data still intact.

We sent the guy who was out $650 a $50 gift card for his trouble. In this whole cycle, he was the only loser. We got back our machine. The TSA agent is probably still stealing at San Francisco Airport with an extra $650 bucks in his pocket.

It's nice to have the computer back.  I will never trust TSA again.

Update: 8/5/2013 As many people have pointed out, maybe it wasn't TSA after all.     Here is an article about the arrest of a United employee.    So sorry, TSA!