Tuesday, January 27, 2015

5 Air Travel Security Tips

Most likely you've lost something valuable at some point in your life. Did you lose it while traveling? I'm sure you remember the heart pounding moment of panic when you realized it was gone. Maybe you left your wallet in a hotel safe, or forgot your phone on a plane. I've found many devices left in airports.

In my millions of miles of travel I've come uncomfortably close to losing many things. I've been lucky enough to have only lost a few things, and only one of any real value, a camera, while traveling in the bush of southern Africa. That was before I discovered digital photography so I only lost one roll of film with it... whew!

Terminal Selfie
But my luck ran out. My laptop went missing while returning from a travel review trip to Scrub Island, BVI with my wife. As on all my trips I was traveling light, with only carry-on bags. But it wasn't the airline that misplaced it this time, and I didn't leave it plugged in at a concourse charging station. The culprit was someone I least expected... TSA.

I got home, put my laptop up, and sat down to check a voicemail. The caller informed me that a different traveler had my laptop. But that couldn't be, I was looking right at it. Then the panic set in... yep, you remember the feeling. I scrambled to open my laptop, only to find the login screen had a different username. The laptop was identical to mine, even down to the scratches but it belonged to another traveler. I'll call him Jim.

I cringed as the realization set in that my laptop may be gone forever, and my personal information may already be compromised, even though I've set up a login ID and password.

For all the details of my laptop switch, and how I got it back, keep reading. But first... here are 5 Air Travel Security Tips to keep you and your information secure.

1. Mark Your Devices
I GORUCK, do you?

How many times do you remove your devices from your bags while traveling? Whether to charge them, send them through security, or use in flight, there are many opportunities for them to be lost or stolen.

Slap a sticker or two on it so TSA doesn't mix it up with a different traveler's device. Consider putting a contact number on it also. Not everyone is a thief though, so you may get it back if you can be contacted. (Conundrum: If a lost phone rings in the wild does anyone hear it? Maybe put a family member's contact number on your own phone. #imjustsayin)

2. Tag Your Bag

If you're not checking a bag on your flight then why tag your bag? I use them for when a flight attendant erroneously identifies my bag as one that won't fit in the overhead compartment, which did happen to me recently. It doesn't hurt to leave a business card inside that includes additional contact information.

3. Avoid the Lavatory
Don't Flush While Seated

Do you trust the sweet grandmother beside you on the plane? Don't. She's likely a corporate super spy sent to steal your company information while your pants are around your ankles.

If you absolutely must use the lavatory take your junk with you, or put it in the overhead compartment where other travelers will be more likely to see granny swiping it. Then let the cops deal with her at your destination, or for instant justice let karma have her.


4. Don't Overshare
3M offers a variety of filters

Sometimes I challenge myself to get as much information as possible from the schmuck(s) I've been conjoined to. Then afterwards I tell them how important it is to guard their personal information from thieves. A few simple questions, and Granny (see #3) could could own you by touchdown.

If you travel a lot then I recommend getting a privacy filter for your laptop and mobile devices. It reduces visibility from any angle other than directly in front of the screen.

5. Back Up Your Data
Time to clean out the old drives

Thankfully before my laptop was misplaced I had backed up important business data. But there were personal files more valuable to me that weren't backed up. I would have never forgiven myself for losing videos of my daughter. 

I always travel with an external hard drive to backup my work. But this experience made me realize another problem. What if it was my laptop bag that had gone missing? I would have lost both the laptop, and the external backup. Store your backup drives in a separate bag to mitigate the risk.


Step #1 would have prevented all this trouble. Thankfully, with the help of the airline, and Jim, I got it back.

So here is how it happened...

My wife and I entered the TSA screening area in San Juan, PR before boarding a JetBlue flight to Fort Lauderdale, FL. I placed our bags on the scanner belt. I placed my laptop, an Apple MacBook Pro, in its own bin as required for the security line I was in. Meanwhile, Jim was in line in front of my wife.

As Jim went through the full-body scanner he was selected for additional screening and asked to identify his bags. He told the screening agent that he had a black bag and a "silver Apple laptop". The agent retrieved for him exactly those items, except that they gave him MY laptop. After I proceeded through the full-body scanner and to my bags I commented to my wife that my laptop had been moved forward in the line of bags.

I didn't think much of it at the time. I've seen TSA agents run bags through the scanner a second time, mixing up the line. So, I grabbed our stuff and we went on our way. Between all parties involved; multiple TSA agents, Jim, my wife and I, nobody noticed the mix-up.

It wasn't until Jim arrived in New York's JFK airport that he realized something was wrong. With the help of a JetBlue baggage claim agent they were able to locate my name on my flight's manifest (based on my login screen name). Jim gave the airline permission to share his contact information with me, and the rest is history.

I don't want you to learn this lesson the hard way so I hope you'll use these tips on your next trip.


My Laptop arrived

I double checked to make sure it was actually mine this time

- David West

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