Bag theft epidemic at Atlanta Airport carousel

A road warrior self-portrait taken in a hotel mirror
A road warrior self-portrait taken in a hotel mirror

Atlanta Airport Police tell a business traveler that luggage theft from the carousel is currently an “epidemic” and “out of control.” The busines-traveler-victim plays detective and reports on the untenable shituation at Atlanta Airport baggage claim:

I was traveling on a two week business trip on a direct flight from San Antonio (SAT) to Atlanta (ATL). I travel domestically about 60% or 70% of the year, often through Atlanta as it is a major airport. This was, however, my first trip traveling to Atlanta as my destination city—on August 19, 2012.

Upon arrival, my commute to baggage claim was confusing. Like any airport, it required a lot of walking, but just when I assumed I had reached baggage claim, there was a subway that I was required to board. The subway was packed. It made at least 4 stops, each time pausing long enough for people to come and go. By the time I finally reached the baggage carousel, bags were just pouring out onto the carousel. None of the other passengers had reached it yet. We were the first! Judging by how the carousel wasn’t even completely filled up yet around the circular metal belt that rotated around, it looked like my business associates and I had arrived a few minutes late at the most. I distinctly recall all of my colleague’s bags just barely coming out for the first time as we stood there waiting. My bags never came out.

I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I was the victim of luggage theft with losses of about $3000. I waited in a long line where people wait in order to determine whether their bags were mixed up and stored in a back holding room for luggage, but the airline staff continued to reassure me that my bags were not back there. When she scanned my bag tag, it said that the last place it had reached was the baggage carousel.

In that moment, I was convinced that someone had come and stolen the luggage before the passengers arrived to the carousel! I looked around the baggage claim area, and the entire place looked suspicious and insecure! There were so many people standing far away looking to have absolutely no legitimate business there, just loitering off of the streets with their jeans sagged down to their knees.

I desperately tried to convince Delta, as well as the airport police, that my luggage was stolen! I knew it was, but nobody would listen. Everyone was as rude as could be, saying things like “you don’t know what you’re talking about. Some one probably mixed it up with theirs.” I knew that wasn’t the case. I had a unique Tumi duffel bag* that I’ve never seen anyone else traveling with. The police, Delta baggage staff, and the TSA were as apathetic as could be. I couldn’t even convince them to look into it, or consider the possibility that it was stolen!

What a nightmare! My bag had two weeks full of business attire, fitness attire, shoes (size 15 which are difficult to find), and prescription medication. I was at Walmart at 2:00AM trying to buy stuff just to wear the next day!

That’s when things got interesting! I began doing some research, convinced my boss to fly me home the following weekend where I had pictures of my 30″ Tumi duffel bag and receipts of all my stolen items. When I flew back to Atlanta to finish the second week of my trip, I persisted with the airport police, showing them pictures of what my bag looks like and documentation supporting the likelihood of my bag being stolen!

First what happened was that the airport police officer who was working at the front desk openly admitted to me that right now they have an “epidemic” (her words) of bag thefts in the baggage claim area of the Atlanta airport. She said, “Just between us, it’s out of control. We’re seeing guys like you come in here every day.”

I finally got through to a police investigator the next day who was on the phone with me as he discovered exactly what happened from looking at the surveillance video footage from the night in question. A black guy in a Kangol golf hat purposely worn low walked in. The detective said, “I can tell he knows what he’s doing”, in reference to how he wore his hat low and kept his head down the whole time. He said he knows that he is a thief because he was purposely standing far away from the carousel, not the way that people stand when they’re legitimately arriving to pick up their luggage. He said he showed up before ANY of the passengers reached the carousel, and then kept he eying my bag which was one of the first ones to come out. Keeping his distance, he waited until the bag rotated the whole way around the carousel until it was closest to his exit. Then he darted in, grabbing it, and taking off before ANYBODY even got there!

The detective openly admitted to me that they’re grabbing bags before people arrive. He said once they reach the building exit to the baggage claim, it’s a total loss and they don’t pursue it any further, no cameras, no investigation, nothing!

I believe that the Atlanta airport has a severe security hole. The thieves are aware of the timing issue where bags beat passengers to the carousels. They know just how easy it is to walk into the Atlanta airport with stolen luggage! They know that they have about 50 feet to walk towards the exit, then they’re scott-free because nobody will even look into it once they’re outside.

The airport is in a really horrible part of town. The baggage claim area is in a place where outsiders can walk in without authorization. After talking with the detective on the phone, I distinctly remember seeing other people walking around the parameter of the baggage claim building, looking around, but there was nothing I could do!

Nobody would help me. One week later, after I finally convinced the investigator to look into the problem, it was too late. I was accurate in my assumptions all along, but it was too late. That thief stole a lot of my clothes. The investigators have a video of the whole thing. They even printed out some pictures for me, but I could never pick them up because the investigator wasn’t present on my way to catch a flight home.

So that is my story. I just don’t know what to do right now because not enough people are aware of this bad security problem. I’ve already emailed the police chief of the airport precinct. I may eventually be reimbursed down the road, but the issue of them not pursuing bag thieves who shark luggage before passengers arrive is underexposed. I was hoping that perhaps by exposing it to more and more people, it will make them obligated to address the problem.


*About his luggage, Jacob added “It’s a wonderful bag–the 30” long black duffel bag by Tumi. The entire shell is of a soft, extra durable canvas material. What I love about it so much is that I could pack 14 pairs of pants and shirts with still room left for shopping, and the bag itself hardly weighs anything.

Tumi Alpha duffel
Tumi Alpha duffel

“Sadly, I’m torn on the decision to purchase my favorite Tumi bag again. The detective who eventually detected the luggage thief on the surveillance video sternly warned me that these thieves are targeting specific brands, and he said that they know exactly what they’re looking for. He said something like this, “On this day it was your Tumi. The day before it was a Louis Vuitton.” I said, “Yeah well he’d get a lot more for that Louis Vuitton than my used $700 bag.” The detective replied, “They don’t care about the bag. They care about what’s in the bag.” That was my big reality check. What would you do if you were me? Buy the bag I lost, or avoid it as a security precaution?”

The fact that the bag is black makes it a target.

© Copyright 2008-2012 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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  • Oh, Mark, I feel terrible for you. But more furious at the airlines and airport. Did you file a police report? How else will local police know the scope of this problem? Jacob, whose story is the subject of this post from way back in 2012, pushed hard and notified police about this security hole. And look, here we are five years later and the same problem exists. Pathetic! I’d say you should publicize in every way that you can—but it will probably do no good. We, as travelers, have no way to avoid this problem, and no recourse when it occurs. And Delta’s treatment of you? Outrageous!

  • Sad commentary that the same thing that happened to you in 2012 happened to me in early February 2017. The Atlanta airport and Delta seem not to care. I too had a long train ride after a quick ‘pit stop’ and found that although my bag had been ‘scanned’ to carousel, it had been stolen before I was able to arrive. My loss totaled $6k with two weeks of business attire, a nice oversized Tumi hardshell suitcase, workout clothes, etc. Surprisingly I was treated miserably by Delta despite my Diamond status… it meant nothing. As of this writing I’m still awaiting any compensation by Delta.

  • So, KP, how did you determine that your bag was stolen and not lost by the airlines? Well, regardless, I sorry to hear it. But would be interesting to learn how you know it was actually stolen.

  • Just had a bag theft happen to me, Mar 2016 coming into ATL from San Jose, 6:30am flight. Silver nondescript Samsonite luggage with a crochet blue flower tied on the handle. Inside, monogrammed and name tagged tailored clothes that no one else is going to be able to wear, and a 20 year old pair of Birkenstocks. Not much else but it’s annoying because it’s going to take time to get reimbursed and commission new clothes, and you can’t buy the old Madeira sandals for love or money… No one checks the tags on the way out of the ATL, and anyone can hop on the MARTA with a bag without being challenged. I’ve often been the nice person volunteering their bag to be checked to move the boarding along but now I absolutely refuse to check my luggage ever again.

  • A follow-up regarding Weerawardena Deepen Silva, whose luggage was lost at Atlanta airport (see above). She wrote me to say that her bag had been found, containing all her precious photos and gifts. So it was an ordinary airline screw-up—not a common airport bag thief.

  • Weerawardena, I’m so sorry to hear about your lost luggage. It’s especially traumatic when your bag contains irreplaceable and priceless sentimental things. It is heartbreaking, and I’m sad for you.

    On top of that is the frustration with the airport officials, who have allowed bag theft go on for years at Atlanta airport. That is why I wrote this article about the situation.

    I, too, once lost boxes of personal photos and negatives, which were stolen from my car. Like your photos, they were of no use or interest to the heartless thief. I feel for you.

    I’m sure you know that security measures are tightening in some areas of the world’s airports. That is why you were questioned about having only your initials on your reservation. It is required that your flight reservations be made with your exact passport name. Some airports may be lax and allow exceptions, but others are more strict, especially now. Yet, with all the extra security, there is none where we, the passengers, need it: at the baggage carousel! So thieves remain able to walk in and steal luggage without fear of repercussions.

    Well, I sympathize with you, even if I cannot help you get back your stolen bag.

  • Lost in aero port of Atlanta pink bag in Atlanta one day before thanksgiving.2015 big sucase pink and in a pink bible. How the same disappear if have camera.what they pay is not anafe for you emotional filens

  • I arrived here in Atlanta air port on 18th. My tow bags already taken out from the iron belt before I attended to it and were opened by some other one. Packets of spices were missing. Well I thought it is only food and left the air port without complaining. Then after visiting my eldest son , I went back to Atlanta air port delta air lines counter to fly to Portland to see my youngest son and rest of the family. I found one of my luggage is missing. It never appeared although I waited and waited. Now this has happened on 23rd December this year. It had all the valuable Christmas for my family here which I brought all the way from Sri Lanka. More than the gifts, it is my youngest son’s childhood photos [6 lb] I am heart broken right now. I was in tears during Christmas when others were happily exchanging and opening presents. I was sent to a scanning place at the Atlanta airport after they took my luggage to weigh at the baggage claim counter . Because they said I have only initials of my name on boarding pass. I have been on nearly 85 flights to different countries but this is the first time that someone complained about having initials and the surname only on boarding pass and not the full name. So I saw my two bags only before I was taken to do body scanning. My eldest son,his wife and baby were with me before dropping bags at the baggage counter. Then I came to Portland and found out one of my baggage is gone with the invaluable things I have mentioned above. Please somebody help me. I need at least my photos back.I do not have negatives to reprint :[
    W. D. Silva.[ the fight number was DL 2149 from Atlanta to PDX [ Portland]

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  • Horrible story, Anne, I feel so bad for you. Isn’t there still a chance that your bag will be found? I flew from Phoenix to Stockholm on June 29, and my bag was missing for more than 24 hours. Totally missing—couldn’t even be found in the system. Luckily, it did turn up. I realize for you it’s been over a week already. The airlines don’t seem to care much.

  • So sorry you had this happen to you Jacob. Just flew from Phoenix to Las Vegas Airport on 6/29/2014 & 2 bags missing with wedding gifts, laptop, cards, wedding clothes jewelry, shoes, money, blow dryer, 2 flat irons, brushes, hundreds of dollars of makeup in a case and oh my husbands $2,000 custom braces for knees to play racquetball more comfortable in. I pray for these sick thieves and know that God will deal with them in his own time so I let that be my comfort. I have a new found compassion for those who have been stolen from and put through having to replace everything and take the time to compile all the receipts & info for Southwest Airlines. No one checks stapled bag tag on ticket to bags at this Airport so very SAD. Will not fly this way again.

  • Hi there,
    I’m a journalist for a UK aviation magazine, Passenger Terminal World. I’m writing a feature this month about exactly this subject – baggage theft at airports. I’d love to speak to Jacob and/or Bambi about your experiences. If you’re interested please get in touch.


  • That’s true for international terminals in Europe and the US, Chris, because you have to go through customs after collecting your luggage. But for domestic flights, even in Europe, since there’s no customs to go through, the bag claim is often open to the outside—and outsiders.

  • How are airports designed in the US? Can anyone walk into the baggage claim area, or is it only in Atlanta? That seems so strange to me, here in Europe I have never been to an airport where the baggage claim is publicly accesible for others than people arriving by plane.

  • Thanks for that, ScottW. Delta did take responsibility. The day after my post, Delta paid Jacob $3,300. Of course the amount is not enough to replace the expensive Tumi bag and all its contents, but it’s something. I will post Jacob’s updates if there are any.

  • A couple of notes. This happens all the time, baggage claim is generally come and go, once people get their stuff they leave, international airports almost always have some sort of tram, so you fly international, but one of the legs is domestic, so you end up in a different terminal, airports are almost always in the bad parts of town. Funny thing, when I travel internationally it’s always for pleasure and it’s usually in cheaper countries. You can’t leave without showing the tag, and they check. So my baggage was safer in Ecuador than Atlanta, at least from strangers steeling it.

    I read a couple articles where people took the airlines (and banks and automakers) to small claims court and won. One guy mentioned that when the airlines decided to start charging baggage fees, the liability for theft and damage shifted. Like a valet taking your car, he was a lawyer I think, and I distinctly remember him writing that all the BS they plaster in small print wasn’t legally binding. Worth a try, small claims are filed where the plaintiff lives( I think), not where they occur and the fee is nominal. The people taking the car companies to court were doing it over inaccurate mileage claims, that was in the news several times, a lot of people doing it. They usually won because no one would show up. I can’t remember the limit, but it’s around your amount $3000. You paid them money to take your luggage, they can’t just dump it off and take no responsibility. Again, like the valet… they can’t leave your car unattended while you pay the bill and act like it’s not their fault when someone steels it. The law is the same, doesn’t matter what Delta feels like, they have the same responsibility as anyone you pay to move or watch your property. To me your contract was with the airlines, that’s who you paid and that’s who handled it. Cops, TSA, who cares, the airlines has to take some care to ensure your stuff isn’t stolen. Airport cops aren’t there to check luggage tags, and if they start asking people if it’s their luggage, their are going to end up in deep S. It’s not their job.

  • I’m surprised I don’t read more stories like this. In many airports. I sell travel insurance and in order to file a claim, you would have to file a police report. I don’t believe the airline is responsible once your luggage is unloaded from the plan so it’s not considered lost checked luggage. I think the “uglier” the bag, the lower the chance it will get stolen. This is a great story, would I have permission to post it on my website ? Of course I will link back to your website. I enjoy reading your tips and would like to share them with our clients. Safe Travels,

  • I find it interesting that many major airlines such as Southwest will only scan a bag once during the time they first receive it at your place of departure.
    They told me the bags are not scanned again, it does not matter how many connections there may be. How frustrating to arrive at your destination and have no way of knowing if your bag even made the flight.

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