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(CNN) —  

It begins, she says, the moment passengers get off planes. Cleaning crews, flight-line mechanics, any airline employee with access to a just-arrived commercial airliner race through row after row of seats, searching for what may have been left behind.

If you saw her in an airport, you would most likely identify her as one of thousands of passengers passing through on any given day. In reality, the thief talking to CNN cleans airplanes for a meager living and cleans up as part of a theft ring operating in a major U.S. airport.

CNN Investigations

  • Email your story ideas and tips to CNNTips@cnn.com.

The employee’s name is not being used, because she is part of an ongoing police investigation into what detectives say appears to be a widespread theft ring involving numerous employees and supervisors who target items that passengers leave behind. While police investigations at airports typically involve items stolen from luggage, this is likely the first targeting valuables in seat pockets and overhead bins left on the plane.

“In my mind, I say OK everybody takes it, why not me? I see these expensive things,” the worker told CNN in an exclusive interview. “When I find something, they tell me, when you want to take it, take it. Don’t report it. (If you) want to report it, that’s your option.”

PHOTO: CNN

It wasn’t an option she chose. She admits to stealing “just a tablet,” although police say they suspect she took much more.

And it was easy. Whatever the mechanics didn’t find, she and other maintenance workers discovered under or between seat cushions. No one was watching, she says, so it was virtually an invitation to steal.

“I take it because it looked easy,” she said. The thief-turned-informant opted to cooperate instead of being arrested.

“Every day, the customers, the passengers leave … articles, different things. Sometimes IDs, sometimes money, sometimes electronics, sometimes toys. Mostly iPads, Kindles, electronics every day.”

Incidents around the country

This alleged theft ring is just the latest example of what police call an insider threat at airports around the country.

This month, a Delta Airlines ramp agent at Palm Beach International Airport was arrested after he was caught with $282,400 in a backpack, telling investigators he was paid to deliver the backpack to someone in a bathroom at the airport.

In another case, a JetBlue flight attendant was recently accused of leaving 68 pounds of cocaine at a Los Angeles International Airport security checkpoint.

A gun-smuggling ring at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2014 that involved a Delta ramp worker and accomplice put a spotlight on the security risk of insider threats and led to tighter employee screening at the airport.

And last year, CNN revealed how police at Miami International Airport put hidden cameras inside the belly of a plane to catch luggage handlers opening bags and stealing valuables.

Even though swiping iPads and phones left behind may not seem as serious, airport police officials around the country say that any crime by airport employees can be considered a threat because they have access to secure areas as well as the planes. In addition, they caution, criminals or terrorists could target a vulnerable employee.

Passengers leave behind iPads, phones, laptops and jewelry, among other items.
Passengers leave behind iPads, phones, laptops and jewelry, among other items.

Lost and found

Police tell CNN that sometimes passengers forget they left something on the plane, so they may not file a police report. Other times, when a report is filed, police have tracked iPhones and iPads to employee homes via Apple’s Find My iPhone option.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of opportunity for unscrupulous individuals when they work here at the airport,” the police detective handling the theft investigation said. “It’s literally everything – jewelry, cash, anything a passenger could leave (behind).”

The detective said the plane cleaners and maintenance workers steal the valuables because in many cases, they can’t afford to buy the items. In some cases, police say they find the items for sale at pawnshops.

“It starts out with small things. They’ll go onboard an aircraft and then it starts to grow,” the detective said. “We have developed information from a lot of individuals that identify potential organized thefts. We are trying to send a message that employees that are honest and decent deserve to be respected, and those that aren’t need to be removed from the environment because they lead to other compromises at the airport.”

The best advice to passengers is the most obvious. When flight attendants tell you to check your seatback and collect all your items before leaving the plane, do it. Because in a matter of seconds, that iPad you left behind might already be gone.