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Fliers lose laptops at airport checkpoints Hundreds forgotten or stolen at security

By Chris Woodyard
USA TODAY

Stricter airport security is producing an unwelcome byproduct: a rash of lost laptop computers.

Lost-and-found counters report being flooded with jewelry, keys, cellphones and especially laptops left behind at checkpoints since enhanced screening went into effect after Sept. 11.

Airports where misplaced laptops and other personal electronics are showing up include:

* Seattle-Tacoma. Screeners turned in 115 laptops left at checkpoints in the last three months of 2001. That compares with three laptops turned in during the same period of 2000. A worker has been assigned full time to try to track down laptop owners.

* Denver. Ninety-six laptops and 74 cellphones were recovered at security checkpoints over two weeks alone from Jan. 28 to Feb. 11. The problem has become so acute that airport officials have posted signs saying ''Got laptop?'' in hopes that passengers will catch a glimpse as they leave checkpoints.

* San Francisco. Police are investigating the disappearance of nine laptops recently from a single checkpoint. Officers recommended that private security screeners make changes to help reduce the losses.

The problem stems from new procedures that require passengers to remove their laptops from their cases and put them through X-ray machines. They forget to pick them up or grab a stranger's laptop by mistake.

''It's clearly connected to the change of habit,'' says Dennis Hatch, who runs Seattle-Tacoma's lost-and-found department.

It's even worse for fliers who are singled out for magnetic wand searches and may be separated from their valuables on the X-ray belt for minutes.

Hatch says he constantly fields calls from ''well-established, professional, intelligent individuals who break down in tears'' from losing a laptop. ''Their day is devastated.''

The new Transportation Security Administration has already ordered security screeners as soon as possible to let passengers stay within sight of X-rayed valuables while being screened.

''It's common sense,'' spokesman Jim Mitchell says.

Private security-screening companies say it's not their job to sort out passengers' belongings coming through the X-ray machine.

''As a general rule, we're not there to make sure everybody gets their stuff,'' says Jessica Neal, spokeswoman for Huntleigh, one of the largest screening companies. ''We're there to make sure everyone's safe and secure.''

Business fliers and their companies are hoping for improvements.

''I hear horror stories every day,'' says Kevin Iwamoto, travel manager for Hewlett-Packard, who has had to deal with employees who have reported laptops stolen at checkpoints.

He suggests travelers tape colored paper to laptops to identify them.


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