Airport Con Games


Bikram Vohra looks into the perils of modern air travel in his Daily Dose

Travel WoesWhether you are the victim of a solicitous conman offering to help you with the confusion of converting foreign exchange or the target of a more elaborate scam where you and your luggage are easily parted, welcome to the incredibly organised world of airport racketeering. Some of the most sophisticated schemes in skullduggery unfold in major airports of the world.

AThe gold bars in the false heel of a shoe is amateur stuff and the real crooks work on a well designed system depending on their expertise. Here then, is an insight into some of the dirty deals that have, occurred and probably still will.

The Ramp Rat:

He works on a ‘seeing’s believing’ basis and is usually limited to third world and smaller airports. A nice neat expensive bag can get pulled off the belt and then retagged. Old bags tied up with knotted string will be ignored. Too much hassle. Zip bags with dozens of easy access pockets are a delight. Later, a contact in the lost baggage will riffle through the bag and pull out the items that have resale value. Ramp rats are usually inside people and among their favourite tricks is to follow a tractor as it moves a pallet of cargo to the warehouse; then ‘net’ a bag or two which can then be transported out quite easily, especially in the dark of night. Changing tags and despatching cargo to other stations where there is a contact is very easy. The bag is then sent back and it makes its way to the lost luggage  centre where another contact pilfers it in comfort.

The warehouse Wolf:

He works from within, taking his time assessing cargo that comes in and then sifting it according to his tastes before it leaves for the aircraft, a time lag that could run into days. One enterprising wolf continued his saga for 25 years, exchanging labels on consignments of carpets so that the most expensive variety fetched up at a Far East destination where a friend received them and together they continued a flourishing fruit of the loom business. Warehouse stealing is the  most common and the movement of cargo is so intense that policing it is next to impossible. However, it is heartening that globally there has been a fall in warehouse stealing and authorities have been able to mount extra vigilance.

The Toilet Trainer:

Some years ago the authorities in India were alerted to a messy but successful tactic in gold smuggling. The bars would be flushed down the toilet on the aircraft. The toilet carts would then be monitored as they left for the cleaning area where they are washed with water over a net so that all the sewage is sluiced away. The bars, too large to pass the net would lie on the netting, gleamingly clean. For a long time this system worked but now toilets are cleaned under supervision and the golddiggers are scarcely in a position to raise a stink.


Inflight robbery is not uncommon but it largely goes unreported. The average passenger is so disorganised and disoriented by the rigours of travel he often does not realise he has been a victim and more often cannot be sure if his belongings are intact. So he keeps quiet. These high-flying thieves can swipe wallets, braille through unguarded hand luggage when the passenger is in the toilet and it is for this reason that airline crew do not allow passengers to pick up their own jackets and coats from the wardrobe. Professional passengers suss out their potential targets. Refugees, newly weds, nervous first timers, the elderly, the rich, those who ask dozens of questions about Customs regulations, these are favourite fowl for picking. Never leave your bags unguarded if there are valuables in them.

Ground Gophers:

With luggage largely standard it is easy to swap bags and, even if caught, cover up with acceptable apology. Usually the gopher carries Useless things in his bag and then looks around a carousel for an identical bag. Thieves do not waste time on workers and common people because they won’t get much. They look for middle class families, the elderly, single women and one of their favourite targets is groups travelling during the wedding season.  The odds are the lookalike will be available. If they get caught they apologise profusely. Usually they do not. If you witness an argument at an airport it could be a diversion by the crook’s accomplice so never get diverted, that could be deliberate.

Sob Snatchers:

About one in twenty passengers are travelling in negative emotional mode. They are in grief and vulnerable to compassion. In that state of mind avoid people who sympathise even if they are sincere… many just see you as an easy mark.

By that same token never get into a chat with strangers and become so friendly that you leave your luggage with them. And never carry something for anyone unless you know what it is and do not ever agree to help someone who is ‘overweight’… his luggage becomes yours. Amazing how many people get conned every minute.