My best friend Aileen (her blog is Points and a Passport) and I travel together frequently. Both of us are constantly on the move, crossing paths in random cities around the world. While we both live busy lives, we still manage to stay connected on a daily basis, often talking travel and catching up with the usual girl talk.
She called me up this morning and told me a story that left me speechless. You hear stories about theft while flying every now and then, but never when it involves your very own friends and with this much drama!
You can read her story in her own words…
I was flying back from Phoenix to New York via Detroit on Delta yesterday. I settled into a Starbucks and got some work done on my laptop to pass the time before boarding. Eventually it was close to boarding time, so I gathered my belongings and headed to the gate. I knew the flight was fairly empty, so I chose a seat in the back so I could have the whole row to myself.
We were slow to take off, so I pulled out my laptop to continue working. Eventually I had to stow my belongings, and this is when I made a critical mistake. Instead of putting my MacBook back in its case, I left it out and simply pushed it under the seat in front of me.
As we ascended, I noticed that it had slid back to the row behind me, but I could still make out the corner of it. I figured I’d just grab once we reached a cruising altitude.
Roughly 4 minutes later, I noticed that it was no longer there, so I tried to get the attention of the only other person seated behind me- a man two rows back. I noticed that he wasn’t very responsive to my polite wave. He seemed tired and was focused on something else.
When we reached a level altitude, I took off my seatbelt and moved to the row behind me, and I still couldn’t find it. I then got down on all fours to continue searching for under all the rows behind me.
I then alerted the stewardess, and she and I looked around the back of the cabin. Searching and searching, panic began to set in. This isn’t a small iPhone, it’s a large MacBook Air computer. It’s difficult for a laptop to just go missing in such a confined space. After about 10 minutes of frantic searching, I started to sense there may be some foul play at work.
I asked politely if the man seated behind me had seen anything. He looked around his seat but then went back to playing on his phone. I mentioned to the stewardess that I had a feeling something wasn’t right. She scoffed at my suggestion and said it was impossible, and that I can’t look through others’ belongings.
I knew that but I figured I’d ask this one man just to rule it out. I asked if he could open his bag for my peace of mind. To my surprise, he agreed. He opened it very hesistantly though, putting his hand over a portion of it. “See nothing!”, he shouts. I saw only an iPad that wasn’t mine and a magazine, but as he went to close the bag that’s when I saw my laptop!
My MacBook has a small pink spot on the hinge from where I had spilled some nail polish a few months prior and there, plain as day, was the spot on the computer in his bag!
I instinctively yanked the MacBook out of his bag and opened it. The computer showed my login screen (password-protected) with my name on the front. I immediately showed it to the two stewardesses as he snatched it back from my hands. “You can’t steal things! That’s mine!”, he yelled.
“You have my laptop. It clearly says my name! Open it and you’ll see”, I retorted. Instead the man shoved it back in his bag.
I was in shock and visibly shaken at this point. I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t just concede that it was mine and give it back. I had never seen someone do that.
The flight attendants split off and one went to speak with him while the other stayed with me. She alleged that I had opened his bag without his permission. I hadn’t done anything of the sort. “He opened it!”, I said. I kept explaining that if he showed it to us again, it would say my name, and the whole issue would be resolved.
But they said they’re not allowed to ask him to show anything. My hands were shaking at that point. I couldn’t believe someone would so blatantly steal something even after being confronted with the truth. It frustrated me to my core that he lied to my face and still had my laptop.
I ended up sitting next to this very nice girl on the other side of my row who, like me, was stunned at the situation. She tried to calm my nerves, but I was scared he’d find a way to keep it. If you’re willing to have someone find out you’ve stolen and still insist it’s yours, you are obviously not a novice at thievery.
The next two hours were grueling. I kept looking back to check on him. I feared he’d try to wipe it clean, break it, or, if he knew someone on the plane, give it to them to hide. I tried to keep a close eye but the flight attendants wanted to keep us at least two rows apart and since he was behind, it made it difficult.
The head stewardess came over and said “trust me. If it’s yours, you’ll be fine”. But I just had this sense of uneasiness. Something felt off. She said that many thieves who are caught in the air tend to conveniently “drop” the item at some point during the flight. But I took frequent “bathroom” trips to check and couldn’t find anything on the floor.
As we got closer to Detroit my nerves started to really set in. When we finally landed that’s when things took a turn for the worst. I guess I won’t have to wonder anymore what happens when a crime is committed inflight. They make an announcement that everyone must stay in their seats, even upon gate arrival.
Then they wait for the police to come on board, and you are escorted up to the front. They also have additional ground crew there to handle the incident. On a positive note, if you want to get off before first class just get entangled in a crime and you’re good to go.
Of course you’ll have to contend with stares from fellow passengers as they try to deduce why you’re being escorted off by police. It’s truly an awful experience. You feel like you’ve done something wrong. And to think that all of this could have been resolved when I initially showed the laptop.
One cop was there to get the story from me, while the other was there to speak with the man. I know it’s just a laptop, but it was the entire situation surrounding it that was startling. I started hyperventilating as I told my story.
He asked if I had the serial number and that’s when I remembered that my roommate was home and she would be able to find the original box. I FaceTimed her and wrote down the serial number and handed it to the cop. “Yes! Finally this nightmare will be over”, I thought.
The man was standing about 20 feet away with the laptop. I could see the various smudges and that pink spot. I saw the cops looking at the number and then back at my laptop. But there was an uneasiness in the way they looked at the number I had given. Then they handed the laptop back to the man!
“The serial number doesn’t match”, the officer said. My heart sank to the pitt of my stomach. I was in utter shock. And then he added “when you open it it’s a white background with safari and some other things. There’s no login information like you had said”.
I wondered how that was possible. Was he really able to wipe it clean while up in the air? The officer said the man is alleging he had purchased it used from eBay and hadn’t loaded his information yet. I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. I called my roommate frantically asking for other numbers on the box. She sent me pics of the numbers but nothing seemed to match.
I mentioned the nail polish mark, which was still visible. “I’m sorry. He said you saw it when you opened his bag and are claiming it’s from that.” It felt like I had been gutted. I felt like I was in one of those crime dramas where the innocent person is seen as the perpetrator and all of the evidence is working against them.
None of the numbers were right and both he and I had departing flights. The man kept urging them to let him go, that I was crazy and that I wanted his laptop. I started to wonder if I had gone crazy and lost my mind. Maybe it was all imagined. Maybe it really wasn’t my computer. Then one officer went back on the plane to double check but to no avail. The only laptop was this one. The pink mark was there. How could he also have that mark in the exact same spot?
I was frantically searching for ways to find my MacBook on my iPhone. Trying to use the “locate my MacBook” function but because there was no wifi connection for the MacBook, the locator wouldn’t work. My hands were shaking as I tried everything I could think of to prove it was mine. The cop said that if I couldn’t prove it soon they couldn’t hand it over.
I wondered if Apple had given me the wrong serial number from the start. I just wished so much that the stewardess had confiscated the laptop so that it wasn’t swiped and could be handled when we landed. That’s when one of the Delta staff suggested I check the serial numbers in my iTunes. He said that if my iCloud and iTunes were used on my MacBook the serial number should be there.
I quickly logged in on my iPhone but I hadn’t used that feature in years and when the iTunes security questions came up I was concerned Id have forgotten them after so much time. After all, I signed up for iTunes when I was 14. First security question “who was your first best friend?”. Security question two “in what city did your mother and father meet?”. I managed to input the correct answer. Boom.
I put in the answers and it went through! And there under MacBook serial number was a completely new number I hadn’t seen before! I showed it to the cops as they were closing up the man’s belongings.
“She has the number!” The officer announced to the other officer. A feeling of vindication washed over me. I felt like Tim Robbins at the end of Shawshank Redemption when he escapes into the rain. I knew I had been right!
I knew I wasn’t losing my mind! I was shaking as tears of joy sprang from my cheeks. Again I know it’s just a laptop but it’s the fact that this all unfolded in such a crazy way and I really thought my laptop would be stolen literally right before my eyes.
The police had me file a report and said that there’s still a chance I may miss my flight. Now that it was clear there had been a theft, it was a federal crime and the FBI would have to get involved. I filled out the incident report as we waited for the FBI.
An undercover FBI agent, who honestly looked just like any middle-aged passenger, came over to get the story. They had the man sit down and took his passport away. The FBI agent apologized for the crime that occurred.
I continued to fill out my testimony when he and the other officer looked at this man’s passport. He wasn’t American and was seen as a flight risk, I assume. As I handed the report over, the FBI agent yelled to the man to put his hands behind his back and read him his Miranda rights as they handcuffed him.
It was such a bizarre scene. The ground crew quickly escorted me to my connecting flight. I made it just in time. I couldn’t believe the whirlwind of emotions I experience all because of a this theft.
I’d like to say I feel sorry for the man but he had every opportunity to return it to me and the stewardess should have confiscated it. Instead he chose to wipe it clean and insist it was his.
I’m sure all of this isn’t worth the $700 or so he would have made if he sold it but hopefully he learned a valuable lesson and will think twice before he steals something inflight again. I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m guilty simply because I’m getting work done on a flight!
*My roommate had mistakenly given me the serial number for my iPad Air not my MacBook Air which was the reason for the discrepancy.
**Also the man had wiped it clean. I lost all of the documents I had been working on for my travel blog, videos I had made and pictures I had taken on my MacBook. All of these things no longer exist. It’s a very sad and unfortunate event for me and hours and hours of work that I’ll never get back.
When Aileen sent me her story, all I could respond was, “Wowwwwwwwwwwww!!!!”. I can only imagine the panic she felt knowing that she caught another passenger with her computer, confronted him, and had to deal with the humiliation of looking like a crazy person in front of the crew and other passengers.
Getting escorted off of the plane by police officers, looking like a criminal, is just icing on the cake.
While she is grateful to be reunited with her laptop (which is now entirely deleted), I do have to say that I am surprised that the Delta crew didn’t handle the situation better.
I am not exactly sure what the correct procedure would be in a situation like this (maybe a flight attendant can chime in), but my gut is telling me that perhaps the crew did not take her theft seriously until it was too late. I’d be livid if I was to helplessly witness someone wiping my computer only a few feet away from me, and then claim it was theirs all along.
I guess the moral of this story is don’t assume that this could never happen to you. Often when I get up to go to the lav on a flight when I am traveling alone, I leave my phone, purse, laptop, and personal belongings at my seat. Aileen’s story is a reminder to be more vigilant and protective of my stuff.
Has another passenger ever stolen your personal belongings right in front of your face? What would you have done if this had happened to you? Would love to hear thoughts from readers, travelers, and flight crew.