Who's Responsible for Items Stolen From Your Bag?

In this week's reader Q&A, we tackle another question that comes up pretty often:

Who is responsible when someone steals something from my bag?

Imagine: You stumble into your hotel room, wiped out after a day of flying, toss your suitcase onto the bed and open it: Your camera, which you thought you packed, isn't there. Didn't you pack it? You did. Probably. And after a moment or two of doubting yourself it hits you: Someone stole it. But who is responsible?

Baggage theft, while not pervasive, is a concern. Just this past December, the Wall Street Journal reported on several recent incidents, including the arrest of baggage handlers in Hartford and St. Louis, with the latter group stealing items including firearms from military personnel. And in New York, according to the WSJ, "police caught baggage handlers stealing items from bags and then switching destination tags so that the luggage would be lost. If the bag was reunited with owners, the circle of possible suspects who handled it had been expanded, covering the tracks of the thief."

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For travelers, there are several ways to deal with baggage theft, with the most effective being perhaps the most obvious: Don't put anything valuable in your bag in the first place. Items like cameras, jewelry, money, and laptops should go in your carry-on. If you can't fit those items in your carry-on and absolutely need them on your trip, consider shipping them. You may also be able to rent what you need.

If, for whatever reason, you have no choice but to put your valuables in your checked bag, you may consider a luggage lock. The jury is out on their effectiveness (they're not exactly difficult to open), and TSA screeners can accidentally damage bags in the process of removing the lock. Locks may also serve as a flag to would-be thieves that your bag contains something worth stealing. Bottom line: luggage locks may act as a deterrent, but are by no means an impenetrable force field for your bag.

But let's return to our original scenario: You checked your camera and now it's gone. Who do you call? First thing is to call the police. The TSA is likely going to ask for a police report, so you'll want to do this first. Then call the TSA and your airline. Do this right away—typically you must report stolen items within 24 hours of receiving your bag.

If the TSA opened your bag to inspect it, there should be a note from them indicating such. But call the agency regardless. A TSA representative told Budget Travel that "TSA thoroughly investigates every claim we receive, whether a NOI (notice of inspection) is present or not. TSA’s Claims Management Branch has a team of trained examiners who investigate and assess the agency’s liability when claims are filed."

As for your airline, keep in mind that airlines' liability for lost baggage generally tops out at $3,300 for domestic flights, and that any carrier will require thorough documentation of your lost items' value. You'll want to gather as much of this documentation as you can, make copies, and have it ready to reference, fax, or mail to the airline or TSA. Also note that many airlines exempt items such as cameras and jewelry from their liability.

And at that point, it's a waiting game. Claims can take weeks, if not months, to be cleared, so be prepared for numerous correspondences separated by long, frustrating stretches of silence.

Have you ever had items stolen from your suitcase? Have any advice to share? Leave a comment below, and don't be afraid to submit a travel question of your own. Thanks!

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