How I Got My Laptop Back From the TSA
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What happens when you leave your laptop at a TSA checkpoint? TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten got some first-hand experience with getting his back, plus talked to a travel security expert about what you can do to minimize your chances of losing and maximize your chances of recovering yours.
Recently I found myself at Tocumen International airport in Panama City (PTY) with some time to kill before my flight. I stopped at the Copa Club lounge (free entry courtesy of the Priority Pass membership that came with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card) to have a drink and do some work. When I unzipped my backpack to fetch my laptop, I was horrified to discover that my computer wasn't inside. It was then I'd remembered that I'd left it at the security checkpoint — the one 3,014 miles away at my home airport in Los Angeles (LAX).
I had flown to PTY to connect to a flight to Bogota (BOG). Back at LAX, TSA PreCheck was not available from the Tom Bradley International Terminal, so I had had to remove my laptop from my backpack for x-raying. For some reason, my bags required secondary screening and I held the laptop while the TSA agent inspected the backpack. She handed the backpack back to me along with some items she had removed and in the process of my fumbling with all the contents and zipping up the bag, I'd left the laptop on the counter.
I wasn't scheduled to return to LAX for another five days. It was bad enough I'd have to continue my trip to Colombia without my laptop, but would I ever see it again?
From the lounge, I connected to the Wi-Fi on my mobile phone and looked up how to contact TSA at LAX. Fortunately, the airport has a dedicated lost-and-found page on its website. There are different processes depending on where the item was lost, and fortunately I was confident I had left mine at a TSA checkpoint. That meant a phone number and e-mail with a tsa.dhs.gov address. I called the number, which led to a recording instructing to use the e-mail address.
I sent an e-mail that included the location and approximate time of my loss, a description of my laptop and my contact information. Then I boarded my flight to Bogota and waited.
26 hours later, I got a reply and the news was good. The first line of the e-mail from TSA: Your item(s) has been found. TSA presented me three options for my item's recovery: pick it up in person, authorize a representative to pick it up on my behalf or have them ship it to me at my expense. A PDF form was attached if I wanted either of the last two options, but I would be back home soon enough and could do it myself.
TSA's Lost & Found at LAX is not actually at LAX. It's on the ground floor of the Airport Spectrum office building nearby, next door to the Hilton Los Angeles Airport on Century Blvd.
My flight back from Colombia arrived at LAX before the office opened at 8:00am, so I took a shuttle to a nearby Denny's and had breakfast, then walked to the office. I arrived to the building at 8:15 and it took two minutes to find my way to the nondescript office door. Inside, the waiting room was deserted and the sliding glass partition was closed.
There was no sign-in sheet and when I tapped on the one-way glass, I got no response, even though I could see people milling about behind it. A few minutes a later, a man coming into the office said he'd see what's going on and another man came out and said he'd be right with me.
I took a seat next to the giant American flag and perused the magazines: a months-old Vogue and an US Weekly from 2007 ("Spencer & Heidi Baby At Last!").
At 8:20, the window opened and a sleepy woman handed me a clipboard. I signed in with my name, item ID# (provided in TSA's e-mail to me), date of travel and terminal information. The woman asked for my ID, item type and brand. Two minutes later, she returned with my laptop in her hand and asked for my ID again. "OK, give me a couple minutes," she said.
Four minutes later, she called my name and I signed my name to another form. "Have a nice flight — uh, day," she said. I was out the door at 8:28.The whole process took eleven minutes.
I was very grateful to have my laptop back and also quite aware how fortunate I was.
Many people never get their laptops back. And although I did many things right, according to travel security and risk consultant Kevin Coffey, there are some other tactics we can all consider to increase the chances of getting our lost stuff back.
Coffey is a former detective sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who specialized in crimes committed against travelers. Now he gives seminars all over the world on this very topic. His first tip? Prepare for your laptop to be lost or stolen.
Before you go anywhere, Coffey recommends that you take pictures of your laptop — "front and back, and also a picture of the serial number, model number, make and model. So when you go to make the police report or if you have to do one in the future, they are going to ask for you that information."
And take these photos with your phone. Why?
"Because if you take it with your phone," Coffey says, "it is uploaded to the cloud under Google photos or the iCloud with the Mac. No matter where I am in the world, if I log into my Gmail account, I can get into my photos and I have things and items that I carry with me that have serial numbers and I have photographs of, if I need to report a loss."
Then, make it easy for well-meaning people to return it.
Putting a label on the top and bottom of your laptop with clear and varied ways to contact you is essential. "Of course, obviously one of the first numbers that I have listed is my cell phone," says Coffey. "And then I have two other numbers along with an email address, and I tell folks to phone or text. The reason I tell them to phone or text is because if they are international, if they don't have international calling on their phone, they may not call you. If it is a text, they might do it." Adding your info internally helps too — put your contact info on the lock screen of the computer.
Another tip that worked for me was to put a distinguishing mark on the lid of the laptop. In my case, it's a sticker of Badtz-Maru, a Sanrio penguin character I enjoy for some reason. With so many latptops looking alike, this not only minimizes the chances of someone taking my laptop by mistake, but it makes the computer easier for the lost-and-found folks to identify.
Of course, avoiding the loss of your laptop at the security checkpoint in the first place is the optimal feat. A technique I picked up from Coffey and now use regularly is his "Monkey in the Middle" tactic. Says Coffey: "If I have three bins, I will put my clothes in one...then, I will put that first because it is the one that can afford to lose the most; and then I put my laptop in the middle because that it is the one that I want to offer the protection to and then I put my carry on bag and take it out at the end." This not only makes it less likely for a thief to run off with your laptop, but it makes you more likely to keep your eyes on the prize.
None of us want to lose our stuff when we travel, but accidents (and crimes) happen. By being more aware and more prepared, we can all minimize the chances of losing our stuff and maximize the chances of getting it back. I was lucky this time and I'm going to do what I can to keep my luck as I continue to take to the skies.