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November 24, 2003 -- When does security equal insecurity? When the TSA asks you not to lock your bags.

The TSA's dislike of baggage locks has led to a rash of thefts from baggage, as dozens of readers have reported on our Message Boards. The agency's "solution" of using plastic twist ties doesn't seem to have helped much, as the ties can be easily snipped with scissors.

While locking your bags can't save them from the occasional corrupt TSA baggage inspector, it can save them from unscrupulous airline or airport employees, taxi drivers or hotel bellhops. Baggage locks may be breakable, but there's a deterrent effect: thieves will just generally go on to the next, unlocked bag.

Finally, the TSA and luggage manufacturers have gotten around to coming up with locks they agree on. The new Travel Sentry (www.travelsentry.org) series of locks are TSA-approved. Coming in both combination and padlock styles from several different manufacturers, each lock has an engraved code telling TSA inspectors how to use special tools to pop it open. TSA screeners have been equipped with the tools and training to open the locks, according to Jon Vermilye, managing director of Travel Sentry.

Vermilye says the lock-opening tools are "tightly controlled, with a chain of custody for each one of them, personally accountable to TSA screeners." In other words, if the tools go missing, someone will know.

Expect an exposé in the Washington Post a few months from now about a couple of corrupt screeners opening locks for fun and profit. Still, you gain a lot by using these locks. If you use a normal lock, the TSA may get out their big ol' bolt-cutters and snip it, leaving you with no lock. If you use no lock, your baggage is vulnerable to every Tom, Dick and Harry hovering around the baggage carousel, taxi trunk or hotel baggage trolley. Use a Travel Sentry lock, and at least your bags are protected through most of the travel process.

Travel Sentry also might save the lock business, which was left looking like the caves of Tora Bora after the TSA's mandate. "We entered a marketplace where luggage and lock manufacturers had lost 80% of their lock business. Suffice to say, there was some desperation," Vermilye says.

The Key to Our Hearts

Travel Sentry locks are all marked with a little red diamond logo. Right now, Travel Sentry locks are available from Brookstone, Prestolock and Austin House; other luggage manufacturers will be coming on board soon. Each company takes a slightly different approach to the device.

Prestolock's Search Alert locks (www.cclsecurity.com/products/searchalert) are especially cool. They feature a little green window that turns red if the lock has been popped. That gives you extra protection against thieves: if your lock has been popped and there's no TSA inspection notice inside your bag, you can angrily brandish the lock before a TSA supervisor and demand to know what's going on. The Search Alert lock costs $7.95, Vermilye says.

If you prefer a combination lock, Brookstone's Easy Check locks are two for $20 online or at Brookstone stores. Click here to go to Brookstone's site.

The Travel Sentry program is a big step forward in baggage security. Get a few of these locks, put them on your bags, and you'll be able to travel with a little more peace of mind.

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