San Francisco

Consumers Say Valuables Stolen From Checked Bags

San Francisco -- An empty Tag Heuer box. That’s all Irfan Ahmed has to show for his new, never-worn, luxury-brand watch. The watch was a wedding gift from his in-laws.

“I was speechless,” said Ahmed. “I just went and hugged them. It was more about the sentiment of this gift than anything.”

After his wedding in Florida, Ahmed packed his new watch in a carry-on bag, and boarded an American Airlines flight to SFO. Because the overhead bins were full, Ahmed had to check his bag last minute.

“And she said, ‘You can receive your bag in San Francisco,’” said Ahmed.”I was hesitant, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Ahmed let the airline take his bag. He says he never again saw his watch.

“When I started unpacking and took the box out, I realized it was really light,” said Ahmed. “And then I opened it and saw that I’d been robbed.”

Ahmed filed a claim with American Airlines, but it was denied. The airline pointed to its passenger contract, which says it does not assume liability for many valuables, including jewelry.

“My heart dropped,” said Ahmed.

Candace Figueroa has a similar story. She packed her laptop in Detroit, checked the bag it was in, boarded a Southwest flight, and when she arrived in San Jose - the laptop was gone.

“I’m like, ‘Where’s my laptop?’” said Figueroa. “I was like, ‘I think someone took it because it’s not in there.’”

Candace couldn’t locate her computer, but she did find frustration on page 29 of Southwest’s passenger contract. It also states it assumes no responsibility for valuables, like computers.

“It was very frustrating,” said Figueroa.

Figueroa and Ahmed aren’t alone. Travelers file claims about theft from checked bags with airlines and TSA. The airlines don’t disclose how many complaints they receive, but TSA does.

Last year, 3,654 travelers told TSA about missing items like electronics, jewelry and purses. Nearly a third of those claims were approved or settled, with TSA paying out $134,573.

Still, those odds aren’t great. So where else can travelers look for help?

Some credit card companies offer protection, but you’ll need to review your cardmember agreement. Also check your homeowner’s or renter’s policy, as companies may extend coverage to luggage. And travel insurance may help too, but you need to read the fine print before buying it.  

Or, there’s always Ahmed’s advice.

“I wouldn’t lose view or sight of my bag,” said Ahmed.

If something’s stolen from your luggage, you can file a claim with the airline, TSA or both. With airlines, you need to file a claim right away, usually within 24 hours. With TSA, you have two years.

After we contacted Southwest, it gave Figueroa $350 in travel vouchers. It pointed out this is a rare exception, a gesture of goodwill.

Ahmed got nothing from American Airlines. The carrier said it works with law enforcement to investigate allegations of alleged theft. Nonetheless, a somewhat happy ending for Ahmed: his new wife bought him a new watch.

Both airlines suggest travelers pack valuables in a carry-on, specifically a bag small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you.

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