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How safe is your carry-on bag?

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
Airline baggage charges mean many fliers now pack as much as possible into their carry on luggage
Airline baggage charges mean many fliers now pack as much as possible into their carry on luggage
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A report by Absolute Publishing suggests 24% of travel-related incidents occur during flights
  • Gang members sometimes target airports and spend the day lifting valuables from carry-on bags
  • Investing in inconspicuous bags can help deter thieves

(CNN) -- When traveling with valuables, it seems common sense to keep them in a carry-on bag. But recent evidence suggests the overhead baggage bins on planes are not always the safest place to stash your goods.

It was a lesson Gilberto Gomez learned the hard way. In 2011, he packed his GPS device in his carry-on and took it on a flight from New York City to Palm Beach, Florida. The last time he saw the device was when his bag went through the security check.

"I don't think it was stolen in the airport, because I was always there with my bag. The only time I took my eyes of it was in the airplane, because I figured, since it was a carry-on, no one would touch it," he admits.

George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, says airplane theft is more common than people think.

"People lower their guards on a plane. They assume that because they're in a confined space, their fellow passengers will be honest, but that's not always the case," he says.

Absolute Software has charted travel-related theft hotspots.
Absolute Software has charted travel-related theft hotspots.

Absolute Software provides tracking and recovery solutions for laptops and personal electronic devices. Last year, 24% of travel-related thefts reported to the company took place up in the air. Derek Skinner, who heads up the company's investigative services, says that usually it is a case of opportunity theft.

"A lot of the time, people leave their laptop under the seat in front or in the storage areas and forget them. Unfortunately, they don't always get handed in to lost and found," he says. Skinner recalls a recent case where cleaning staff were swiping leftover laptops between flights (the culprits were ultimately fired).

Planes aren't the only area where goods get pocketed. Skinner notes that 18% of thefts reported take place in the check-in and security areas.

It's easy to become flustered when you're going through security, and that makes it easier to be a target.
Derek Skinner, Absolute Software

Read more: Do frequent flyer schemes make you loyal?

"It's easy to become flustered when you're going through security, and that makes it easier to be a target," says Skinner.

"There are times when your items have gone through the screening process, but you're stuck at the metal detector, and your laptop is on its own, and out of view. You have to be careful when checking-in to keep your eye on your belongings at all times."

Skinner also points out that organized crime is an increasing concern at airports. He says it's not uncommon for roving gangs to buy a cheap ticket to get them through security.

"They can spend the whole day just lifting expensive items from the back of chairs while passengers are sitting at the bar."

Not all industry experts believe the issue is rampant enough to cause alarm. An Air France spokesperson said in-flight theft is minimal, and police headquarters at Los Angeles Airport (LAX) similarly stated that the number of cases reported has been small and steady throughout the years. Hobica, however, notes that many cases go unreported.

Gomez says that when his GPS was stolen, he emailed the airline, but didn't bother following up after he failed to receive a response.

People assume that because they're in a confined space, their fellow passengers will be honest, but that's not always the case.
George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog.com

"It just seemed like lost cause," he admits.

Infographic: What we spend on business travel

When items do get stolen, there is seldom much recourse.

"The airlines aren't going to do anything for you, but some travel insurance does cover things taken from your bag, so it's good to look at your policy before you travel," says Hobica.

So what's the best way to protect your hand luggage while flying? Skinner says it's helpful to label your electronics with your contact details, just in case they should migrate to the Lost and Found department. He also recommends avoiding traveling with conspicuous baggage and burying valuables in hard to reach places.

"You don't really need a fancy lock," he says. "If (a thief) steals the whole bag, it won't really help. It will stop someone from dipping, but so will a zip or a buckle. Thieves like to get in and out very quickly, so they tend to avoid fiddly bags and catches."

Hobica says that when he travels, he keeps valuables close at hand and avoids putting his luggage in the overhead bin.

"You can secure your bag under your seat with a cable -- that makes it harder to steal. It may sound extreme, but I don't think it's too extreme to guard yourself."

How to behave on an airplane

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