Sorry, But Your Luggage Lock Is Pretty Useless

Thieves have an easy way of getting in without you even noticing.

luggage lockMihai Simonia/ShutterstockWhen you’re traveling, everything important to you is in just a bag or two. So if a thief gets into your luggage, you could lose your laptop, jewelry, clothes—everything. Even if you think you’re being careful, though, you might be a surprisingly easy target.

Using a luggage lock sounds like a no-brainer for keeping sticky fingers out of your belongings. But a basic latch won’t be able to stop every crook. “Luggage locks are made to keep honest people honest,” says Kevin Coffey, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department as a Detective-Sergeant and founded the LAPD’s Airport Crimes Investigations Detail. “Somebody who is really committed will get into the lock very easily.” And they don’t even need to bust the lock open. (Find out why your hotel safe isn’t as secure as you think either.)

Part of the risk is that to latch your suitcase on a flight, you’ll need a TSA-approved lock. The agency’s officers have a ring of master keys, and one of those keys will be able to open your bag if the agent thinks anything in the luggage is a security risk. But thanks to photos released by the Washington Post, people have successfully 3-D printed their own copies of TSA master keys from home. So a crook could easily open your bag with one of the fake keys, then lock it again without your knowledge. (Learn how to know if you’re an easy target for criminals.)

Some TSA-certified locks can fight this, though. Certain models have a “search alert” option that lets you know when a TSA agent—or thief with a homemade key—opens your bag. Only someone with the combination can turn off the indicator, so crooks can’t cover their tracks. “If you see the window is red, you can open it up then and there in the airport … and make sure nothing is missing,” says Coffey. Check out these other tricks for outsmarting criminals.

An alert won’t keep thieves out, but it will make them easier to catch. Trying to call in about lost items can be a nightmare, and some airports don’t even have a phone number available, says Coffey. But if you notice anything is missing before you leave, you can report it to security right away.

Even without a 3-D printer, though, it’s shockingly easy to open locked bags without anyone noticing. Thieves just poke a pen through the zipper to pry the teeth apart. But here’s the clincher: They can shut it behind themselves so you don’t notice. By bringing the latched-together zippers to the bottom of the bag, then back to the top, crooks close the bag behind them. “All luggage besides a small percentage has re-sealable zippers,” says Coffey. Learn more secrets burglars use.

That’s why some locks (like this one from Coffey’s site corporatetravelsafety.com) have a second loop that can go around your bag’s handle. “This doesn’t stop the zipper from being pilfered, but it stops them from re-sealing it,” says Coffey. For a cheaper option, he suggests using a long zip-tie to connect your zippers to your handle. They’re totally legal because the TSA can just snip them off. If anyone got in your suitcase, the open bag would be a major red flag.

Of course, none of these options keeps thieves out—they’re just a warning after your belongings are already gone. Another option would be to pay the airport to wrap your bag in plastic. “Or you can just use Saran Wrap,” says Coffey. “If the TSA needs to get in, they will just cut it.” If you’d rather just invest in new luggage, a lockable suitcase that uses a latch instead of a zipper won’t give thieves the option to poke it open.

Even if you don’t buy a whole new suitcase or bother wrapping up your suitcase, don’t throw away that lock. It might not keep thieves away, but it does serve another purpose. “Luggage locks are meant to keep luggage together and keep luggage shut so it doesn’t accidentally open up,” says Coffey. Without a lock, the zip pull could get caught when it’s being handled, and your bag could open and spill everything inside—just one more mistake that makes travel too stressful.

Looking for more travel safety tips? These 13 tips will keep your home safe while you’re away.

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