KIRO 7 tests tracking devices as airport baggage thefts hit all-time high

SEATTLE — Baggage thefts are up this year at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and as people prepare to fly for the holidays, police are encouraging them to think twice about what they’re packing and to even consider tracking devices.

According to police and airport officials, in 2019, before the pandemic, there were 179 baggage thefts at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In 2020, that dropped to 145 as many people stopped traveling. In 2021, it rose to 231. So far this year, the figure is at 318, which is the highest it has ever been. The highest before this year was 295 in 2008.

Megan Morris and her family became one of this year’s victims in January, when they returned to Seattle after celebrating her husband’s birthday in Hawaii.

Until it wasn’t. Morris and her family got to baggage claim about 30 minutes late due to a medical emergency on board their flight. By the time a person was helped off the plane, their bag was gone.

“Clothes, our shoes, our snorkel gear, souvenirs, presents,” she said. “The saddest thing was both of my little boys had personalized blankets that their auntie had made for them in there.”

They reported it to the airline and to the Port of Seattle Police, who try to monitor all the baggage carousels. Online, Port of Seattle Police posted several photos of a man they say took her bag and others.

“It is really frustrating and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” Morris said.

An airport official said the airport handles about 23 million bags per year, but acknowledges that if a person’s bag is stolen, the numbers aren’t much comfort.

Port of Seattle Detective Darin Beam said thieves are ready for more people to fly.

“Around the holidays does baggage theft pick up?” asked KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon.

“Unfortunately, it does,” Beam said. “With the holidays, people go, they bring gifts. Grandparents are bringing gifts for the grandkids and unfortunately the baggage thieves know this. So we’ll see a lot of people coming in just specifically to steal bags. But we also anticipate this and address it accordingly.”

KIRO 7 asked the airport about when it’s seeing the most thefts. A spokesperson said the busier the airport is, the busier thieves are as well, so weekends, as well as Thursdays and Fridays, tend to be favored days. The busiest times of the day at the airport for arriving passengers are from around 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

The Port of Seattle also points out that people are bringing and checking in more bags now than before the pandemic.

In 2018, at the airport, each passenger checked in an average of 0.32 bags, a number that’s below one because some people just do carry-on. This year, that number has increased by 56% to 0.5 bags checked in per passenger.

More bags checked in mean more opportunities for thieves, so some travelers are fighting back with tracking devices that can help track down bags that are stolen or lost.

Body camera video from Atlanta Police shows them confronting an alleged baggage thief in March. They used a device in a traveler’s bag to trace it to a train.

“What do you think about these devices—Air Tags, Tile, other things, to track your bag?” Sheldon asked Beam.

“I think they’re fantastic,” he said. “I use them myself.”

So KIRO 7 tested three of them right out of the box: an Apple AirTag, a Tile Pro, and the LandAirSea 54 GPS tracker.

The team put the devices in a suitcase and producer Julie Berg placed the suitcase somewhere in the airport. KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon waited upstairs by security.

The AirTag, priced at $29, immediately indicated a location for both the bag and for the iPhone being used to track it, enabling the user to figure out which direction to go in.

AirTags send a Bluetooth signal detectable by your Apple device using the “Find My” app. But if your iPhone isn’t nearby, the AirTag can use any nearby Apple devices with the “Find My” app to send its location back to the owner. Apple boasts that this network consists of nearly a billion Apple devices.

The Tile Pro, priced at $35, initially appeared to be across the street from baggage claim, perhaps in the parking garage, but then notified the user that it was “not in range.”

The Tile website states that it has “up to 400 feet” of range, which is described as its longest Bluetooth range. The Tile, similarly to the AirTag, uses its own network—anyone running the Tile app—to help update a Tile’s location. Both Androids and iPhones can run the Tile app.

The LandAirSea 54 GPS tracker was priced at $30, but it also requires a tracking plan. The most basic plan, which provides location updates every 3 minutes, is $20 a month, though there are discounts for prepaying several months.

It provided a very detailed image that appeared to show the suitcase on one of the airport’s skybridges to the parking garage.

While both the AirTag and Tile Pro can play sounds, the LandAirSea 54 GPS tracker lists no such ability in its user manual. All three can connect you to a mapping app, although getting to the map through LandAirSea’s app is less intuitive and takes more screen taps.

In KIRO 7′s test at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon checked two skybridges. At the second skybridge, the Tile found a signal it called ‘strong,’ while the AirTag indicated that the suitcase was ‘far.’ As Sheldon moved along the skybridge, the Tile signal turned to moderate.

Sheldon tried the baggage claim level, and immediately the AirTag provided on-screen an approximate distance in feet, while the Tile indicated that the signal was ‘very strong.’ She found the suitcase underneath the beginning of the skybridge.

In this test, the AirTag performed the best at detecting different levels. In a later test, it continued to relay information about a bag’s whereabouts over the course of days as it moved during a cross-country trip. This was likely due to the bag being near iPhones that could help locate it. It continued to work through the end of the trip.

The LandAirSea tracker always maintained its detailed image, but that image made the item appear to be over Arrivals Drive in a skybridge. The LandAirSea tracker can also provide an approximate speed for the item to which it’s attached and is a popular choice for car tracking, although it was the first of the three items to stop relaying a signal in that cross-country travel test (it failed at 50% battery life after the plane took off).

In the same test, Tile was successful at providing a location in airports, but when the bag left an airport, it could not be tracked for several days. Upon the bag’s return to an airport, the Tile app provided an updated location. It continued to work through the end of the trip.

Tracking device or not, Detective Beam advises travelers to put any sentimental or expensive items in their carry-ons, not their checked bags. And if they do have to check in a bag, he advises them to make it stand out.

“I’ve seen people that have covers for their luggage, that have pictures of kitty cats or palm trees,” he said. “Something that’s ideally unique and immediately identifiable… it potentially widens the amount of witnesses we have to a crime.”

Megan Morris also wants to know if airlines and airports could do more to keep bags safe.

“We should somehow be able to handle this so that it’s not the responsibility of the citizen to not be stolen from,” she said.