By Ken Kaye
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- They fall into temptation and turn into thieves.
While going through airport security, passengers may spot a wallet, jewelry or a laptop in another traveler's bin and grab it, thinking no one's looking. But federal and local officers usually spot them via closed-circuit TV. And their planned excursion instead becomes a trip to jail.
"It's 100 percent a crime of opportunity," said Roy Liddicott, the Broward Sheriff's Office chief at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "Most of these people have no criminal record. But they seize opportunity instead of doing the right thing."
On average, passenger-on-passenger theft occurs about 10 times per month at Miami International and about once a month at both the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach international airports.
Typically, the theft occurs as a bin is rolling out of an X-ray machine, and the rightful owner isn't paying attention. Frequently, the victim is well on the way to the gate before realizing something is missing and runs back to the checkpoint to notify the Transportation Security Administration.
At that point, TSA security officers and police team up. They go into a closed-circuit TV monitoring station, as each checkpoint is under surveillance. They rewind the tape to the approximate time of the theft and, by identifying the victim in the video, usually spot the thief, Liddicott said.
"Generally, we're able to review the video really fast," he said. "Nine out of 10 times, we catch the suspect. Usually, they haven't even boarded their flights yet. We approach, recover the property and make an arrest."
If the value of the stolen property is under $300, the suspect is charged with petty theft, a misdemeanor. If it's $300 or more, it's grand theft, a felony. Most of those arrested face felony charges. For instance, a passenger at the Fort Lauderdale airport lifted a $6,500 Rolex watch from a bin and was arrested last year.
Large amounts of cash also have been stolen. In November, a woman purloined a wallet containing $4,480 from a bin at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International. After watching video, TSA officers and Broward Sheriff's deputies quickly found the 59-year-old registered nurse from Yonkers, N.Y., and recovered the money.
However, the victim, a non-resident from Jamaica, declined to press charges because of visa issues, Liddicott said, adding that charges are filed only if the victim wants to prosecute. "So the woman merely got a warning," he said. "It was her lucky day."
Cellphones and laptops also are popular with opportunistic thieves. In October, a passenger reported an iPhone4 was missing. The perpetrator was found with the phone in his hands while sitting at a Dunkin Donuts counter. He was taken to jail; his wife and child made their scheduled flight, police said.
At Palm Beach International Airport in November, a passenger grabbed a Mac laptop from another traveler's bin. A detective soon found him and recovered the item. At Miami in October, a man took another passenger's laptop from a bin and placed it in his shoulder bag. He was caught at his gate, but the victim decided not to press charges.
Passengers who become victims are usually "in such a hurry that they leave things behind," Liddicott said.
Tim Lewis, the TSA's federal security director at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, said, passengers should never let valuables out of their sight.
"To reduce the threat of losing items, and to speed up the line, passengers should put all valuables into their carry-on bag in advance of entering the line, especially wallets, cellphones and jewelry," he said.
When thieves aren't caught, it's generally because the victim didn't notice the missing item until it was too late. Last month, as she approached a checkpoint in Fort Lauderdale, a woman accidentally dropped two rings on the floor while attempting to put them in a back pocket. A woman behind her picked them up and walked away. Although the thief's image was captured on video, police are still hunting for her.
In some cases, thieves board their flights, only to be arrested at their destination airport because local police called ahead.
"It's not always a theft" when items go missing, said Palm Beach Sheriff's Detective Eric Reid.
Sometimes passengers accidentally grab another traveler's property and return it to the checkpoint. Other times, passengers forget an item halfway to their gates, run back to the checkpoint and find it.
"They even sometimes don't remember until they are already on the plane," said Sari Koshetz, TSA spokeswoman.
Aside from checkpoint thefts, passengers unwittingly lose suitcases and valuables all over an airport, not just at checkpoints.
"It happens all day long; people find stuff, and 99 percent of them turn the lost property over to someone in authority," Liddicott said.
As for those who might be tempted to steal, be forewarned that you're being watched, Liddicott said.
"There are few places in an airport where you're not under video surveillance of some sort. That's the growing trend," he said.
TIPS TO AVOID THEFT AT CHECKPOINT
• Don't rush: Give yourself plenty of time to get through security and catch your flight. People in a rush are more likely to leave valuables behind.
• Put valuables in carry-on: Especially wallets, jewelry and cellphones. You'll still need to keep a laptop separate.
• Place your laptop in its own bin: Also, place a large identification card with your name and phone number on the outside of the laptop.
• Always face the metal detector: Even if you're subject to a secondary screening, keep your eyes on your bin as it progresses through the metal detector.
• Don't take off rings: Unless they are extremely large, in which case, put them in the carry-on.
• Inventory your property: Immediately after completing screening and before leaving the checkpoint to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.
Sources: Transportation Security Administration, Broward Sheriff's Office