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Woman forced to check bag on flight is victim of rising SFO luggage theft

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

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.

‘Normal during this time of year’

Travelers endure long lines in Terminal 3 at United Airlines' security checkpoints San Francisco Airport on July 1, 2022. | Camille Cohen/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.”

READ MORE: Rising Airport Luggage Theft and How To Protect Yourself

After her bag was confirmed as lost, Bretz said United recommended she file a police report. Per the airline’s liability policy, it 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.

Thefts Almost Doubled

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

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 with 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.

Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at