Mid-flight thieves steal thousands of dollars from unaware travelers


On-board thieves are coming up with more cunning plans than ever to relieve you of your valuables. Source: Gus Ruballo

UNDER the guise of being just another traveler heading to the same destination as you, thieves can operate with stealth and sneakily take your belongings without you having any idea.

A combination of jetlag, unfamiliar surroundings, occasionally having a tipple and assuming their belongings are safe can make travelers easy targets for opportunist thieves.

Business travelers are often hit the worst. Simply living out of a suitcase, from meeting to meeting and airport after airport, means valuables such as laptops, iPods, money and documents are packed into one bag and easily accessible if the owner does not have a lock.

Thieves have conceived cunning ways to eliminate the risk of arousing suspicions, such as replacing US$100 bills with one-dollar notes in wallets and even accessing locked bags via a small zip-opening device.

In 2016, a Hong Kong-bound passenger lost over $250,000 in cash and luxury goods in a mid-flight theft. The items were reported missing, but to no avail, as the thief had already left the aircraft.

Passengers are often lulled into a false sense of security onboard a flight as they are in a confined space and there is nowhere to escape to. However, these organized criminals can work as part of a network and get away scot-free by passing around stolen loots to separate the goods.

Hong Kong to Middle East routes seem to be rife with theft, and in 2015 Hong Kong cabin robberies rose by 25 percent with 77 reported incidences. This number has, however, dropped to 22 reported cases in 2016.

Victims of this mile-high crime include South China Morning Post reporter Vivienne Chow, who had her wallet swiped from deep inside her cabin bag on a flight from Hong Kong to Madrid in 2016.

“I didn’t realize the cash was gone until I arrived at my hotel,” Chow told This Week in Asia.

“And the funny thing is, the thieves did not take everything from my wallet. Didn’t take credit cards or anything else, just my euros. They even left some of it in my wallet, which explains why I didn’t realize my cash had been stolen until too late.”

While greater vigilance is called for, sleep and toilet breaks are often necessary on long-haul flights and often passengers are asked by cabin crew to put their bags in the overhead lockers.

But, ultimately, airlines will do little to compensate any thefts, so be sure to keep precious items on your body, take bags to the toilet with you, have a healthy suspicion of strangers, and get a good padlock.