HomeGeneral TravelHow my iPad "went missing" at Heathrow security

How my iPad “went missing” at Heathrow security


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When is a security line not secure? When it’s at Heathrow, apparently.

Recently, I was catching an early flight out of London Heathrow, and because I got to terminal 5 before the security lane at the First Wing opened, I decided to use the priority security lane at the north end of the terminal rather than waiting for the First Wing line to open. In hindsight, that was a poor decision.

It was 5:15 in the morning, so the north priority lane didn’t have many people in it and I was looking forward to a quick hassle-free trip through security before I headed to the lounge.

After putting my iPad and MacBook into one tray and my carry-on bag into another, I pushed them toward the baggage scanner and moved into the line of people waiting to walk through the people scanner.

The people scanning should have taken no time at all but because some genius working the security detail that morning had decided to set the standard people scanner to ultra-sensitive mode, its alarm was being triggered every single time a passenger passed through. Not one person ahead of me (there were about 10 passengers in front of me) passed through without triggering the alarm.

The result of this was that everyone was being diverted to the full-body scanner (the type where you have to stand with your arms in the air and your feet placed on markers on the floor) and get scanned again. Then, because that wasn’t annoying enough, the full-body scanner was flagging most people that passed through it and they then had to be scanned (for a third time) by someone with a hand-held wand (I really appreciate TSA PreCheck every time I pass through Heathrow!).

Needless to say, this theatre of nonsense caused a line to form very quickly and as my two trays passed through the baggage scanner, I was still over 6 minutes away from getting through to pick them up.

Ahead of me was a couple, and ahead of them was a man (possibly accompanied by a woman or another man) who was traveling with two kids (aged somewhere between 5 and 7).

Out of this group, the second kid went through the full-body scanner last (just after the man he was traveling with) and whatever came up on his scan triggered a manual hand-held wand scan.

Security will not hand scan a child without one of the adults they’re traveling with being present and because the gentleman traveling with this child hadn’t waited to watch him pass through the scanner (he had gone straight to the conveyor where all the hand-baggage trays were waiting to be picked up) there was a further delay as security waited for him to return.

Eventually, it was my turn to go through the full body scanner and, unsurprisingly, I got pulled to one side for a wand scan which, just as had been the case for everyone ahead of me, found nothing.

By the time I got to my trays, I had been separated from them for at least 6 minutes and it didn’t take me long to notice that while my MacBook was still in its tray, my iPad which had been placed next to it, was nowhere to be seen.

Immediately I informed the security person nearest to me who then sent me to talk to a “supervisor” located a few lanes down.

This supervisor couldn’t have appeared less interested if she had tried.

She showed all the urgency of a Galapagos tortoise and after a couple of minutes of digesting what I had told her, she passed me over to another supervisor while informing me that it was time for her break.

The next supervisor wasn’t much better but at least he didn’t go on a break and at least he called someone to take a look at the camera footage.

At this point, I’m going to resist the urge to tell you exactly what I think of the people who were working Heathrow T5 security that day (it would have been a long rant!) and I’ll just give you a few further facts before I move on to the more interesting part of the story.

  • The Apple “Find My” app couldn’t find my iPad (the last place that it had been “seen” was at my UK address).
  • I used the Find My app to lock the iPad and to put a message on its screen with my contact details.
  • The person who had been called to check the camera footage appeared after about 10 minutes and went into an area to one side of the security lanes (presumably to check the tapes).
  • 20 minutes later, he reappeared, called the security supervisor over, said a few words to him, and then went down the escalator to the main duty-free area of Heathrow T5.
  • The security supervisor then told me that the camera guy had “seen someone” taking my iPad and that he was now heading to one of the chain restaurants in T5 (presumably to see if he could apprehend the person concerned).
  • 5 minutes later the security supervisor said that he was going to go after the camera guy “to help”. He never reappeared.

After hanging around a further 20 minutes wondering what was going on, I realized that I was in real danger of missing my flight (which, unhelpfully, was departing from the B gates). I wrote my contact details down on a piece of paper, handed them over to another member of the security staff, and ran to my gate.

I made it just in time and while I was waiting for boarding to close, I went online to report the theft to the British police.

I never heard back from Heathrow security but within 48 hours of reporting the theft, I had been called by Heathrow police who wanted more details. 48 hours after that, the police called me again to confirm that they had checked the surveillance footage, had seen how my iPad had been taken, had identified who had taken it, and had contacted the person responsible.

24 hours after that, the police called me a final time to say that they would have my iPad in their possession by the time I had returned from my trip and that I could pick it up from their station at Heathrow.

To say that I was impressed would be an understatement and after thanking the officer responsible for getting my iPad back more times than I’ve ever thanked anybody in the past, I found out what had happened.

The man (traveling with the children) that I mentioned earlier was the one who took the iPad (you probably figured that out already!) and while I am 100% certain that this was a theft and not an accident, the police, unfortunately, seem to believe his story that this was all an honest mistake and aren’t pursuing the matter further.

You decide who’s right… 🙂

After passing through security, Mr. X went over to the trays at the end of the baggage scanner, took a bag of toiletries out of one of the trays (presumably his tray), and placed it on top of my iPad. Then (I don’t know how much later) he removed the bag of toiletries and my iPad and went about his day.

As I’ve said, Mr. X claims this was an honest mistake but this is why I have a lot of trouble believing that:

I can imagine a scenario where someone may not take a good look at a tray that’s sitting next to one of their trays and accidentally think that it’s one of theirs. In that scenario, I can also imagine that person taking something out of their tray and absentmindedly putting it in the second tray as they tidy up their belongings.

It’s a pretty stupid thing to do but I can see how it may happen.

What I cannot understand, however, is this: If Mr. X genuinely thought that my tray was actually his, why did he leave a 16″ MacBook sitting in it?

The tray in question only contained an iPad, a bag of toiletries, and a 16″ MacBook so how did Mr. X not notice that half of what he (apparently) thought was “his tray” was taken up by a big silver laptop when he came to empty it?

Sure, you may only glance at a tray next to yours while you’re tidying up your belongings, but when it comes to actually emptying a tray, most normal people look directly into the tray that they’re emptying. Given that, how did Mr. X not notice that he was leaving behind a 16″ laptop? How come he didn’t look at the laptop and wonder what it was doing in “his tray”?

Also, if Mr. X genuinely thought that the iPad he picked up was his, he would have opened it up at some point (in the airport, on his flight, or at his destination) and seen the contact details that I had transmitted to it and realized his mistake…so why didn’t he contact me to arrange to return it?

No. This was no “honest mistake”. Mr. X is a thieving ******.

Anyway…

I have my iPad back (I’m looking at it now) and when I visited Heathrow Polar Park Police station, I was given the chance to say a proper face-to-face thank you to the officer who recovered it for me, so all’s well that ends well.

I’m pretty sure that Heathrow police have a lot more pressing things on their hands than a missing iPad so the fact that they investigated the incident as quickly as they did is very impressive. The fact that they actually recovered my iPad is nothing short of miraculous and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. That’s a pretty wild story. One thing I’ll say: As someone who has traveled extensively with young(ish) kids, I would definitely be capable of accidentally doing something like this if my attention were on what my kids were doing or what my spouse was saying while I was packing up (no idea if this was the case in this situation). This would be even more true if I had an ipad and could think the ipad I found myself holding was mine. I’m not saying this is what happened, but it sounds like you don’t think it’s plausible. My take: Plausible yes, likely no.

    • Oh I’m more than happy to believe that what you describe is plausible in certain circumstances…I just think that in this case in which the man wasn’t paying attention to his kid (he left him to go to the trays) and where he had multiple opportunities to (a) realize that he was dealing with someone else’s tray and (b) realize that he had someone else’s iPad, we are not seeing the actions of a stressed-out parent.

  2. How did the police know who to contact?
    I’ve always thought the X-ray area at any airport was the easiest place in the world to steal, so am always super vigilant. Thieves work as a pair, one guy doesn’t take his watch off/remove wallet etc. Holds everyone up, while his accomplice goes before and swipes stuff. Out of the country with a wallet, laptop etc easily.

    • Passengers were being asked to scan boarding passes before passing through the scanners so it’s possible that once the police could see who had taken the iPad, they could then wind back the video to the point at which Mr X scanned his boarding pass and from there use the BP scan data and the video timestamp to work out who he was and what flight he was on.

      ETA: There’s always the possibility that once they have an image of someone’s face, they have ways of tracking that person through the terminal via facial recognition software. If that’s the case they could track him all the way to his flight and get his name from the information his boarding pass would have given the gate scanner.

  3. All the comments are about Mr X. I find that irrelevant. What about the absolutely shocking and recurring poor service we have come to accept as normal from airport security? I always try hold my tray back until I know my path is clear to walk through, even then its open to theft and missing your flight leaves little time to argue. They could not care less of theft directly under their noses.

  4. Typical lethargy response from the security staff. Air of arrogance at all times. I always put a coat over my laptop if I carry it. And I never take my phone or watch out of my bag or pockets, even if they state it. If they do insist ( which they haven’t) I take it out and rescan the items, at least I will be watching them and waiting for them to come out of the scanner since I’m already passed.

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