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SFO luggage thefts almost doubled: How to protect yourself

A man stands next to a Tesla parked outside an airport terminal.
A man loads his luggage into a Tesla at the San Francisco International Airport. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Before you travel this holiday season, take note of the following:

Heidi Bretz didn’t want to check her bag, but by the time she made it to her gate for a flight home to San Francisco, a United Airlines attendant told her that she didn’t have a choice: There was no more overhead space. 

She reluctantly let them tag her bag and take it away. It was free of charge and came with a tracking number so that she could follow it, they said. 

But when Bretz landed at SFO, her bag didn’t show up on the conveyor belt at the airport’s open-area baggage claim. 

She checked the tracking number online and found out that it was actually coming on a later flight. She was told she could either come back when it arrived or the bag would be shipped to her home. Three weeks later, it is still nowhere to be found. United Airlines told her that the bag was likely stolen.

Travelers wait for their luggage at a baggage claim area in San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 16, 2022 | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard.

Thefts Almost Doubled

Data provided from SFPD’s airport bureau shows total baggage theft reports have nearly doubled at SFO, with 119 thefts reported this year as of publication, compared to only 67 in the entire year prior. 

Meanwhile, the theft rate per 100,000 passengers has remained steady. An SFPD spokesperson said on an average of every 100,000 passengers, roughly 0.30 filed a theft report so far this year, up from 0.28 last year. 

According to a recent report from the Department of Transportation, the number of delayed or lost bags rose to six out of 1,000 bags in February, up from five out of 1,000 the same time last year, suggesting that as more people travel again, baggage theft also rises. 

‘Normal during this time of year’

A traveler sorts through United Airline's unclaimed baggage area at San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 16, 2022. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard.

Bretz said she lost thousands of dollars worth of valuables when her luggage disappeared. Her first recourse was to call United, which like other airlines, is responsible for handling its customers' bags. 

“The handler told me that [theft] is normal during this time of year,” Bretz said. “It got so bad that he said they even had a [company-wide] meeting about it.”

After her bag was confirmed as lost, Bretz said United recommended she file a police report. Per the airline’s liability policy, they would only reimburse her for up to $1,500 if she filed a request with receipts.

Unfortunately, she said her bag contained valuable items that she has owned for years.

“How do they expect me to keep receipts that far back?” she said. “That would make me a hoarder.” 

United estimates that it serves nearly 18,000 passengers a day across 241 flights. The airline was contacted for comment.

How To Protect Yourself

Travelers wait for their bags at the Oakland International Airport on Wednesday, November 30, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

SFPD’s Airport Bureau said it has “a special team that focuses on baggage theft cases.” 

They recommend the following tips for passengers to reduce the likelihood of theft:

Go directly to baggage claim after landing. Don’t stop to get coffee or food until after claiming your baggage. Unclaimed bags that remain on the carousel make an attractive target for thieves. For bags arriving at a later time or date, Bretz said that she would meet them at baggage claim instead of waiting for it to be shipped next time. 

Consider placing a smart tracker in your baggage. SFPD said its baggage theft team has “had success recovering several stolen bags that utilized those devices.” 

Make your bag distinctive-looking. Either by buying a bright-colored bag or placing unique markings such as bows or stickers on it. Baggage thieves often focus on bags that blend in, like plain black or gray. 

Don’t put valuables in checked baggage. Moreover, if you must check in a bag at the gate like Bretz did, the department recommends you move those valuables into a personal item that you’re still allowed to carry onto the plane. 

Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at