Travel Security Announcement: Breaking into a Suitcase with a Ballpoint Pen and What You Can Do About It

by June 5, 2012 06/5/12

We’re presenting a security announcement today surrounding the protection of your valuables while traveling. The technique of using a ballpoint pen to open any luggage utilizing a zipper, is one that’s been publicly disclosed for some time now.

There are unfortunately many that aren’t aware of this risk, or that it leaves no tell-tale sign that the suitcase has even been tampered with. As you’ll see below in our video demonstration, by simply shoving a ballpoint pen into the zipper track, you can pull the suitcase lid open and access the interior contents. Then with a simple movement of a still-locked zipper slider you can reseal the suitcase without leaving evidence of tampering.

We also offer some suggestions in this article on what you can do to further secure your luggage while traveling, both physical items that afford you extra security and knowledge that will help you the next time you travel.

Breaking Into a Suitcase With a Pen

Travel Security Caveats

The fact of the matter remains that any suitcase, luggage or pack that utilizes a zipper is susceptible to this attack. There are some ideas we’d like to present here that will at least either secure the interior contents of your suitcase or provide evidence that your belongings have been tampered with.

Before getting into that, know that there’s no perfect method to protect a suitcase that’s out of your direct control. Once you turn over your luggage to the airline, there’s always a risk of never getting it back. Luggage gets “lost” all time, never to be reunited with its owner. Knowing this, we hope that you always decide to keep your valuables and irreplaceable items in a carry-on that’s always in your control.

Something else to be cognizant of is continuing to watch the overhead bin you’ve just put your carry-on into until the flight attendant shuts it. We’ve heard horror stories of someones carry-on being ripped off right on the airplane by another passenger on their way to their seat. They simply move the carry-on to the overhead bin near their seat and leave the plane with your bag before you even know it’s gone.

Increasing Your Odds

Security as a whole is only to either buy you time, or visually and physically harden what you intend to secure. That being said, the options we’re presenting here are just that. Either options to buy you the time to inconvenience a would-be thief, or make them disregard your belongings as a target.

Pacsafe

The first item you can use to secure valuables inside your suitcase is a Pacsafe, which is steel cable webbing that surrounds bulky contents with a lockable drawstring. To utilize this, you’ll need to have a luggage frame to route the cable around. Most suitcases with collapsible  handles have this underneath the liner. If you don’t have a liner you can unzip to access these struts, you may have to make cuts to feed a cable through.

These Pacsafes are also great for using once you get to your destination. You can put a bag or other contents in them and lock it to a bed frame in a hotel room when you have to leave. While anyone with bolt cutters or lock picks can get into them easily, just remember its intended purpose. To either buy you time or visually and physically harden.

In-Car Gun Lockers

Another option for your valuables are In-Car Gun Lockers from Center of Mass. These lockers have so many applications and can be utilized for everything from suitcases to vehicles for storage of valuables and handguns. These also feature a steel cable that can be girth hitched around the struts in your suitcase or even to the frame of the seat in your vehicle.

TSA requires a locked case inside of your suitcase for transportation of a firearm when traveling and these In-Car Gun Lockers are perfect for this. Again, is this a completely full proof method? No, but here’s the broken record… It’s to buy you time or visually and physically harden. These lockers can also be keyed alike when purchased, or come in a combination lock configuration, which is less pick-resistant than the double-sided key required to open the keyed lockers.

One last benefit of these are that you can keep a handgun securely stored in a vehicle with an In-Car Gun Locker while visiting establishments that don’t allow concealed carry. Examples of these are federal buildings, post offices and private property with properly posted signage.

Hard Cases

Probably the most costly option today is to travel with a heavy hard case like a Pelican Case. This will surely add to the weight of your belonging and tip you into the “overweight” category with the airlines. If cost isn’t an issue with what your traveling with, this may be the best option, as you can securely lock Pelican Cases with multiple locks.

Just remember padlocks can always be shimmed or picked open and relocked without leaving tell-tale signs.

Anti-Theft Luggage Zipper Strap

While a misnomer, the Anti-Theft Luggage Zipper Strap won’t prevent theft, but it will give you a visual indication of tampering. This inexpensive option simply prevents a would-be thief from re-closing your suitcase after they’ve gotten into it by opening the zipper track with a pen. This will obviously give you the indication of a break-in, but also won’t allow them to re-close it.

This can be a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in the sense that it will tell you if someone has tampered with your suitcase, but by not allowing the thief or the airline to re-close it you could be setting yourself up for lost contents or worse, your suitcase never arriving.

Shipping Your Suitcase

One last option is to ship your suitcase. While you’re still susceptible here as you are with the airlines, there’s another degree of security you’re afforded by having your suitcase in an nondescript cardboard box.

Just like with the airlines, loss and theft still run rampant and there’s also the hassle of setting up a destination to ship your luggage to.


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justwin
justwin

I think this technique can also be used to set you up as a smuggler or a criminal.

He/she can just open your luggage and put something illegal (typically drugs) and boom! You'll be arrested at an airport customs. If it's a country very strict about drugs, say China or Indonesia, you'll certainly end up with a death sentence.

justwin
justwin

I think this technique can also be used to set you up as a smuggler or a criminal. He/she can just open your luggage and put something illegal (typically drugs) and boom! You'll be arrested at an airport customs. If it's a country very strict about drugs, say China or Indonesia, you'll certainly end up with a death sentence.

Lon
Lon

One thing you could do to add to your security is to seal the zipper track of the suitcase with tape of some kind. You could use duct tape or gorilla tape for instance. This tape would be very strong, which would reduce a false alarm resulting from the rough handling of the luggage, but it would look terrible and leave adhesive residue all over the case. You could use a more fragile tape, but the trade off would be in the form of a false alarm due to the handling of the case. The whole idea is not to prevent the break in, but to at least alert you that someone tried or succeeded in opening the case. Just a thought.

Brian D
Brian D

Hey guys at ITS Tactical. Would you consider doing an article on all the ins and outs off traveling with a firearm? Although I've been a permit holder for many years, traveling with a firearm on an airline is something I've never done. Mostly because of anxiety from making some rookie mistake in the process and being on the evening news! Maybe others would fine it useful too.

Thanks for all the great info you guys put out.

Brian

Brian D
Brian D

Hey guys at ITS Tactical. Would you consider doing an article on all the ins and outs off traveling with a firearm? Although I've been a permit holder for many years, traveling with a firearm on an airline is something I've never done. Mostly because of anxiety from making some rookie mistake in the process and being on the evening news! Maybe others would fine it useful too. Thanks for all the great info you guys put out. Brian

Matt
Matt

I've had a PacSafe for a good number of years and I have used it for both conventional backpacks and for duffel bags. It is also very useful for bungling up gear into a lockable unit, climbing gear for instance, it's not foolproof of course but it's a good deterrent.

The one big hit I have on the PacSafe is the lock it came with. The ones I have seen (I know quite a few people with them) have all been the ones with the mechanism exposed at the bottom of the keyway, where all you need to do is slide the bar and the lock springs open. I would have expected a little better from a security product! It just goes to show that some locksport skills really do come in useful so that you can check these things.

Matt
Matt

I've had a PacSafe for a good number of years and I have used it for both conventional backpacks and for duffel bags. It is also very useful for bungling up gear into a lockable unit, climbing gear for instance, it's not foolproof of course but it's a good deterrent. The one big hit I have on the PacSafe is the lock it came with. The ones I have seen (I know quite a few people with them) have all been the ones with the mechanism exposed at the bottom of the keyway, where all you need to do is slide the bar and the lock springs open. I would have expected a little better from a security product! It just goes to show that some locksport skills really do come in useful so that you can check these things.

Brendan Mason
Brendan Mason

I've used PacSafe products for years on duffel bags and backpacks, and have to disagree about the need for a frame in the luggage being secured. When the cable is properly secured using the locking mechanism and a padlock, the cable can't be loosened without removing the lock. There's a how-to video here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVIOIi8YziA&feature=player_embedded

TJ
TJ

Boom! I just bought the locker from Center of Mass.

Brian Green
Brian Green

It would faster for the TSA to use the ballpoint pen method than it would to fuss with the padlock. And they probably do. In fact I bet there is a Govt Issue ballpoint pen that's been developed (at great expense) for this single purpose ;)

Jeffrey C. Anthony
Jeffrey C. Anthony

Traveled for work for years, Pelican 1610 for luggage.

Stands out enough that people don't tend to easily take it without notice.

Keep in mind also, when carrying firearm, if you are using a full case, since it's legit to keep it inside without a smaller case inside you can use real (non tsa) locks for the entire case. It's a little extra time on baggage check, but worth it IMHO. Locking the inside case is not so useful since those are so easy to grab, stuff in a backpack and take off, unless like suggested you find a way to cable it to the case.

for tamper evidence, zip ties with a little paint on em can help perhaps? not fool proof, but with the non tsa locks, you know it's not TSA opening things at least.

I wonder how hard it would be to build an RFID tag squealer, that goes off when the case is opened if the rfid tag is not present... Or just notes time of opening.

Jeffrey C. Anthony
Jeffrey C. Anthony

Traveled for work for years, Pelican 1610 for luggage. Stands out enough that people don't tend to easily take it without notice. Keep in mind also, when carrying firearm, if you are using a full case, since it's legit to keep it inside without a smaller case inside you can use real (non tsa) locks for the entire case. It's a little extra time on baggage check, but worth it IMHO. Locking the inside case is not so useful since those are so easy to grab, stuff in a backpack and take off, unless like suggested you find a way to cable it to the case. for tamper evidence, zip ties with a little paint on em can help perhaps? not fool proof, but with the non tsa locks, you know it's not TSA opening things at least. I wonder how hard it would be to build an RFID tag squealer, that goes off when the case is opened if the rfid tag is not present... Or just notes time of opening.

TW
TW

If you suspect this or have proof, please report it. It is theft. I hate reading about TSA in the news, but I would rather see the media report another TSA employee fired/jailed than to let it continue...

TW
TW

One thing that everyone seems to forget: Declare your firearm to the airline check in attendant. If you don't and the gun is discovered, police will be summoned and you may or may not make your flight...

Another thing to keep in mind: If you are travelling with a firearm, make sure you understand the firearm laws in the state you are travelling to AND the state you have a layover in. The reason I say this is there has been many people charged with firearm crimes because they were delayed at the layover airport (let's say D.C.), went to a hotel, came back the next day and during the security process the firearm is discovered. Handguns are still not permitted in DC without a local permit (I think, correct me if wrong) the individual is then either fined, arrested, and the gun confiscated.

If you don't have a TSA approved lock on your bag and your bag alarms TSA's detection systems, TSA will cut your lock off if your not present to open it. The best way to counter this is to declare your firearm and have TSA inspect it in front of you (this may be airport dependent). After they inspect it, you can lock it back up. This may be a problem with your suggestion above with locking the entire bag, because the bag will still be sent through the detection system and if it alarms they will have to open the bag again.

As a side note, not all of us at TSA are freedom haters! There are many of us that are ex/retired military still trying to fulfill a mission of protecting our country.

TW
TW

One thing that everyone seems to forget: Declare your firearm to the airline check in attendant. If you don't and the gun is discovered, police will be summoned and you may or may not make your flight... Another thing to keep in mind: If you are travelling with a firearm, make sure you understand the firearm laws in the state you are travelling to AND the state you have a layover in. The reason I say this is there has been many people charged with firearm crimes because they were delayed at the layover airport (let's say D.C.), went to a hotel, came back the next day and during the security process the firearm is discovered. Handguns are still not permitted in DC without a local permit (I think, correct me if wrong) the individual is then either fined, arrested, and the gun confiscated. If you don't have a TSA approved lock on your bag and your bag alarms TSA's detection systems, TSA will cut your lock off if your not present to open it. The best way to counter this is to declare your firearm and have TSA inspect it in front of you (this may be airport dependent). After they inspect it, you can lock it back up. This may be a problem with your suggestion above with locking the entire bag, because the bag will still be sent through the detection system and if it alarms they will have to open the bag again. As a side note, not all of us at TSA are freedom haters! There are many of us that are ex/retired military still trying to fulfill a mission of protecting our country.

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