Second 15 Minutes of Fame: TSA Agent Who Sold CNN Camera on eBay Released from Prison

The TSA agent who went to jail for stealing a CNN camera and selling it on eBay (after first simply going on paid leave) is now out and talking about the TSA culture that permitted and even encouraged such behavior.

He explains he only got caught because he forgot to remove some of the CNN stickers before the sale.

“It was very commonplace, very,” said Pythias Brown, a former TSA officer at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey who admits he stole more than $800,000 worth of items from luggage and security checkpoints over a four-year period.

“It was very convenient to steal,” he said.

..Brown is one of almost 400 TSA officers who have been fired for stealing from passengers in the past decade. According to the TSA, 381 TSA officers have been fired for theft between 2003 and 2012, including 11 so far in this year.

And that’s the number that have been fired, and it isn’t easy to actually be fired.

When he was arrested, I offered the TSA’s defense that

only 465 officers have been terminated for theft in the past five years (“0.4 percent of those employed by the agency”).

Somehow the number of officers terminated between 2003 and 2008 has shrunk in the four years since this incident, despite more officers having been terminated since that time. So I’m not sure how the math works. But their defense is still the same:

The agency disputes that theft is a widespread problem, however, saying the number of officers fired “represents less than one-half of one percent of officers that have been employed” by TSA.

This former TSA agent explains how his colleagues helped him out in his thefts.

Assigned to screen luggage behind the ticket counters, Brown said he often worked alone, was told when overhead surveillance cameras to prevent theft were not working, and was never asked about suspicious behavior.

“It was so easy,” said Brown, “I walked right out of the checkpoint with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”

He said he soon learned how to read the X-ray scans to find the most valuable items to steal.

“I could tell whether it was cameras or laptops or portable cameras or whatever kind of electronic was in the bag,” Brown said.

At the time of his arrest, Brown was offering for sale some 80 cameras, video games and computers on his personal eBay page.

“It was like being on drugs, it was,” he told ABC News. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ but the next day I was right back at it.”

Brown described one instance when he got a tip off about complaints from passengers about thefts.

“One gentleman that used to work in the office one day came to me and said, ‘They were talking about you in the office. Be careful.’ I said, ‘Okay.'”

He also explains that TSA-standardized (‘approved’) locks were great because they were easy to pick, without the variance in lock types that means they only need to learn one. And the sense was that it was easy to steal, they were low paid, so it was ok.

Via Ben here’s a video of a TSA agent stealing an iPad

As they say, a..

few bad apples in no way undermine the hardwork that thousands of men 
and women who provide security do to keep us safeday in and day out.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. This is why when i do check a bag, it only has my clothes, which i don’t consider valuable. All jewelry, electronics, and valuables are always carried on.

    And i use a laptop safe bag so that i don’t have to even remove that. The only thing that goes in a bin or is otherwise exposed are my shoes and freedom bag. I just don’t trust airport workers and i find it incredible the lack of security in the ramps and supposedly secure areas.

  2. one half of one percent (of those who have been caught) is a huge percentage and something that shows a systemic problem. It is not a statistic that indicates acceptable performance in any stretch of the term for crimes of moral turpitude committed by employees of an organization.

  3. The linked video only shows a TSA agent ALLEGEDLY stealing. That’s what the caption in the video says as well. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

    I appreciate that you have very little love for the TSA, but don’t let that cloud your judgement here. As the video itself demonstrates, a vast majority of TSA staff are honest folks doing a thankless job.

  4. It’s not a surprise to me. The tsa agents I see do not look very educated and have a lot to gain by stealing electronics. I wonder what the requirements and background screen that they undergo.

  5. “I wonder what the requirements and background screen that they undergo.”

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    It’s what one of my former colleagues referred to as the Foggy Mirror Test. You hold the mirror up to the applicant’s mouth…

  6. Requirements Fred?Very simple but strict
    1)Alive with a pulse
    2)Unable to find work
    3)Interested in groping or sensual pat downs of the widest types of passengers of all ages
    4)March everybody through the mistaken government purchase of xray body scan machines and don’t assess indivdual high risk passengers of risk
    5) keep focus at all times on water bottles over weapons
    6) keep a focus on securing most desirable items for personal use or gain through theft
    7)Fully out of prison

  7. 58,401 current TSA agents. This guy is 0.001% of them.

    You’re right-they all must be evil thieves.

    I’m sure 100% of your workplace-no exceptions- are complete innocents, with NO CRIME WHATSOEVER. I know *my* workplace is. No one where at any place I’ve ever worked would so much as steal a pencil.I’m sure your workplaces have been the same way.

    It’s just that the TSA attracts the dregs of society. .04%! My god! That’s horrible! Where do they get these people, prison?!

  8. @Naif- you put a diamond watch in checked luggage? Seriously? Do you leave your wallet on the front porch also?

  9. @Easy Victor – simpletons do exist amongst us. I was horrified when we landed in a foreign land few months back and the friends traveling with us asked if we could cover them for the unexpected visa fees at the airport. It turns out that the guy thought it was too much trouble carrying the wallet on person and he put it in his checked baggage. Error in judgement? Perhaps!

  10. So did any of the folks who were robbed of this $800,000 total get reimbursed by him or TSA? I doubt it. TSA likely denied responsibility for the thefts and they victims were out of luck after being robbed by their own government.

    Everyone who flies regularly has had something stolen from a checked or carry bag. I have had belongings stolen six times, twice at the checkpoint and four from checked bags. Whenever something was stolen from checked luggage there was a TSA inspection slip inside as if they were bragging that they robbed and defying me to stop them. I filed six claims and all six were denied. The airlines refused payment saying that TSA had control of the bags.

    I traveled just as much for fifteen years prior to TSA’s creation and never had anything taken. They don’t do proper background checks and don’t care. Last week a TSA screener at Ft. Lauderdale airport, Andrew Smeal, was arrested for child pornography. He had been hired by TSA a month earlier even though he was under investigation by the FBI.

    Much of the media has been pandering to TSA, repeating their propaganda and excusing the agency despite repeated incidents of smuggling drugs and guns, nearly a hundred criminal arrests and exposing over a dozen pedophile TSA screeners. The media that ignores these failures are promotes TSA propaganda is slowing reform of this failed agency and making air travel less secure.

    TSA has become a jobs program for misfits who can’t get hired anywhere else and crime is rampant within the agency. Does anyone really feel safer having people who will rub stranger’s genitals in public every day for $15 an hour and stealing from passengers in charge of security?

    TSA costs taxpayers $8 billion a year and we can’t afford to pay public employees to commit crimes and endanger air travel.

  11. Thank goodness Congress agreed to make airport screeners professional government employees! I don’t know about you, but when I’m robbed I greatly prefer that the perpetrator is a government worker. They are so much more professional about it.

  12. I think for fairness, it’s clear that in the video they left their iPad at the checkpoint, only to return later to find it missing. Still theft, but also entrapment. Clearly the thief was not regularly stealing iOS devices, otherwise he would know about the “Find my iPhone” application.

    In Singapore, and some other overseas checkpoints I have gone though, they have a card system to make sure that belongings go back to the owner. I think there are also people who’s only job is to watch the items and make sure none get misplaced. Finally, smaller multiple checkpoints would probably be safer against theft than the massive ones you have in some US airports.

  13. Singapore Changi does everything better than U.S. airports. Everything. It took me about 30 seconds to get through security there, which was because I took about 15 to chat with the agent about how professional their service was.

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