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BUTTERNUT BITES: #7 Flying Wise: Security in the Skies.

NSDR Journal

VOL. XIX, No. 1

March 2002




#7 Flying Wise:  Security in the Skies.

(This is the third of five articles on security)

By Steve Ellsworth


There you are, finally after months or possibly years of preparation, on your way to the airport to fly away to an exciting city that will play host to a major or national convention.  Perhaps you are a collector who has spent a lifetime putting together a truly remarkable collection of coins that have been in the family for years or a collection that you have worked on since you were a child.  You plan to finally shop the “bourse” to ask those last few “tough” coin questions. Perhaps you’re traveling to get two or three offers prior to selling your prized collection, in order to pursue other collecting interests.  It is possible that you have prepared a coin exhibit that had taken years to assemble, by having carefully and painstakingly purchased only examples of coins that truly represent the exhibits purpose for a serious national competition.  Or, you may be one of hundreds of coin dealers who are required to ravel with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of coin inventory, more times a year than you want to think about.

In all these scenarios, the individuals involved will have worked countless hours preparing their materials to present them in the most favorable light…yet; few will spend even a fraction of the time spent in preparation of this enormous investment, to address even the basic security aspects of their trip.

Thieves have been successful in stealing coins or jewelry on the way to the airport in cabs and hotel shuttle buses.  Thieves have been successful at rental car counters, car pickup points and car drop-off points.  Thieves have been successful at airport curbsides, ticket counters, security checkpoints, inside secure areas, inside airport restrooms, luggage carrousels…and yes, even on board the aircraft.

The fact of the matter is that the moment you leave your home or office, you are vulnerable to theft, and even more so on your return trip.  It would be naïve for someone to think that by reading this article, you would be impervious to such a crime, but perhaps, just perhaps, it will prevent you from being an easy “mark” or target.

Since I first wrote on security matters over two years ago, I have been sent incident reports of numerous thefts.  It concerns me that I continually receive these theft reports that a simple prevention step or procedure I have previously written about could have prevented the crime.  I sometimes fear the thieves read my security more carefully than do collectors or dealers.  Am I doing a service or disservice to numismatic community by writing about security matters?

When a criminal robs a bank they can be assured of five things happening:


  1. The overall take will be less than $10,000.
  2. The money they get will be marked and traceable.
  3. There will be a picture of the crime, with them in it, that can be verified by host of bank tellers and customers.
  4. The crime will be vigorously investigated by local and Federal law enforcement.
  5. When caught, the criminal will likely serve time in Federal prison.


Whereas, in comparison, if the crime is perpetuated against a coin dealer or collector, the comparison of the five things is quite different:

  1. The average coin dealer will travel with a minimum of $50,000 in inventory, and many dealers may have in excess of $500,000.  Collections and exhibits can sometimes be priceless.
  2. The numismatic inventory will be hard to trace, and is seldom marked or recorded to help convict a criminal.
  3. There will be no photograph of the crime, and likely not even a witness.
  4. Not only will law enforcement be reluctant and slow to investigate the crime, but they will seldom have any training in numismatic crimes, and worse, they may even suspect the dealer has overstated the values of the inventory to defraud the insurance carrier.  The fact is that most dealers are either not insured or drastically under-insured.  Additionally, most law enforcement investigators find it hard to believe the amount of money involved.  I do know a few law enforcement officers that are very knowledgeable in assisting other law enforcement officers solve a numismatic crime.  Two that stand out are Detective Doug Davis in Arlington, Texas and Sheriff John Anderson in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
  5. If the criminal is apprehended, it is usually by the majority of the investigation being conducted by a dealer or collector and their persistence by refusing to be a statistical victim.  After countless hours, trips to the jurisdiction of the local court where the crime occurred, wasted trips on defense attorney’s delay tactics, the criminal will be given a slap on the wrist with little or no jail time.

The age-old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could never be truer than with security.  The easiest way to prevent crime is to avoid it by not giving criminals the opportunity to perpetrate crimes against you.

Security risks can never be eliminated, but risks can be managed to a tolerable level.  Vigilance must always be maintained, as security is a constant.  Constantly practice “what if” scenarios.  You need to discuss your security thoughts and ideas with others, especially those whom you travel with.  I, like most others, have made the mistake of telling my wife when she is traveling with me to “watch my coins” while I am in the restroom, getting food or making a phone call.  Like any dutiful person would do, she watches my coins without my giving any further instructions to her on what she is to do in the event of a theft!  Is she to scream, wrestle with the thief, give chase or simply do as I have instructed her to “watch my coins.”  If this is the case then her reply after a theft should be….“I watched your coins, while someone stole them.”  What if the thief is armed?  What if there is a distraction?  What if there is more then one thief?  What if we are in a rental car or in a hotel or airport shuttle van?  Without proper instructions as to what she is to do in various theft scenarios, I may as well have put her personal safety at risk by asking her to “watch my coins.”

Take a few minutes to write out a brief security plan of our own travel for the trip.  Be alert and aware of your surroundings.  This in itself can be an excellent defense, as criminals avoid vigilant persons.  My recommendations and suggestions can be useful to collectors and dealers only if they continually practice and apply them to their own situations.

Security is a personal responsibility.  Your security is not the responsibility of the police, politicians, or government.  They do not have the means or intention to protect every citizen.  Unless you are willing to cast your fate, and life, to the wind, your first line of security is you.

As a review, most security can be divided, and developed into four parts:  operational security, perimeter security, external security, and interior security. 

Operational security could be referred to as “your mode of operation,” or how you operate.  You need to ask yourself, “What kind of target am I presenting?”  Perimeter security is considered in the immediate area near the target…you and your valuables.  As an example, while you are traveling, the area that you can physically observe in all four directions would be considered the perimeter.  External security is considered the outside shell or walls of your car, taxi, shuttle, or airplane.  Internal security would be inside the aircraft or vehicle, or anywhere you can physically touch your coins.  Your objective should be to try to think in ways which you can improve and protect each of these four areas.


Operational Security:

Plan to arrive at the airport with plenty of extra time so you can be meticulous as to your own security.  That will ensure you extra time so you are not tense, and lose concentration on your security plan.  The extra hour may be the best investment you will ever make if it helps to prevent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of collectibles from being stolen.  After the air tragedies of September 11th, two or three hours may be needed.  Again, if possible, travel with a partner.  Discuss your security procedures before leaving and not in public.  Try to travel with only one checked bag and only one that can be carried onboard with you containing your coins.  This is difficult for some, but do you really need to take two carry-on cases, weighing so much that the Jet-Way hydraulics readjust when you enter?  You may not have everything you would like to take but you can still take plenty of numismatic materials to have a wonderful convention.  While I recommend loading your case as heavy as possible while driving, flying requires a slightly different tactic.  Most airline carriers restrict carry-on luggage to 50 lbs.  So if you are used to loading your case with 80 or 90 lbs, it is possible you could be denied boarding.

Insurance is an excellent idea for both collectors and dealers.  The normal costs are approximately 1% a year.  For professional collectors and dealers, this cost is a deductible expense.  Most policies have a number of restrictions and exceptions including coins left in unattended vehicles.  Some homeowners’ policies will cover small coin theft, but many have exclusion clauses.  Be sure to read your insurance policy carefully, as one policy I reviewed has so many claim restrictions that it practically stated that unless the theft was by an armed robber, carrying a gun that you could identify, and were positive the fun was loaded, you were not covered.  Some dealers have unfortunately found that anytime coins are left unattended, even at a show, they may not be covered.  Also, remember that many claims are not paid without legal action against the Insurance Company.

At major coins shows, larger firms sometimes used armored transport for inventories and collections.  At some, professional numismatists used U.S. Postal Service (USPS) registered mail or a privately insured carrier to reduce the risk of loss when sending coins.  Be sure to keep in mind that the Postal Service has a maximum dollar amount for each registered piece of mail of $25,000.  This may require sending multiple packages.  Never send valuable via certified mail.  There is no recovery process on certified mail should it be lost.  If feasible, consider the above options, even if you use these services only occasionally.  It may be worth the extra effort and expense to explore the logistics of them.


Perimeter Security:

Organized groups of thieves have been known to operate in many major airports.  Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Houston have been reported as having some of the highest airport crime rates.  Perhaps part is due to the large volume of people that pass through them on a daily basis.

You may need to be especially alert at airport x-ray security checkpoints because of their potential risk to valuables.  If possible, let your traveling companion go through the scanner and wait on the other side to retrieve the carry-on luggage.  You in turn should wait to go through the checkpoint until after your case has cleared the x-ray machine.  Professional thieves like to stop in front of you, with enough metal to set off the alarm, while an accomplice will steal your case from either side of the machine.  In addition, security personnel running the x-ray scanners have a habit of reversing the conveyor belt when something is not clearly identifiable such as coins or jewelry, giving a thief an easy target by reaching the entrance opening of the scanner and grabbing your case, while you are on the other side waiting for your bag to appear.

Nearly always, you will be asked what the contents are in your case or to open it for inspection.  I have found that the best way to keep your case contents confidential is to present a 3”x4” card with your business card on one side and the following on the reverse:  “I am a courier carrying rare coins, gold, and jewelry – if necessary, I may need to request a private inspection as allowed by FAA regulation number #108.9.”  Have the card laminated in plastic.  Be friendly, but firm.  You certainly have the right to ask for a private inspection, but the airline is not required to give you one.  Be advised that an airline can refuse passage to anyone, with exception of FAA Federal Sky Marshall.  I would recommend that if you get an inexperienced security inspector, it is best to simply ask for the checkpoint security supervisor (CSS) to help resolve the problem, trying to do so discreetly.

Remember that the x-ray scanner machine cannot tell what the metal is in your carry-on case as it normally shows on the scanner as a large blob.  Numerous times I have had security personnel yell out “I need to have someone for a private check of valuables!”  Or they may even proceed to spread out your coins in full view of the public airport.  Your destination city can easily be obtained by a potential thief, who can then phone ahead to his/her accomplice who will be happy to meet you when you arrive.

Most likely you will be accompanied to a small room or a screened area so the contents of your bag can be inspected.  It is most important that you handle your coins to, in and from the private search area.  Never let screening personnel transport or handle your numismatic materials.  Keep focused on what you remove for inspection to insure that the same is returned to your case and not left out as you exit the private screening area.

Following your private search, while still in the private search location, lock your case, and leave it locked until you arrive at a secure destination.  It amazes me how people feel that once they have passed through the airport security checkpoint that somehow they are now safe as thieves have been detected by some form of x-ray that has prevented their entry.  And do not think that just because you paid that extra fee to relax in a frequent flyer lounge you are safer.  Ask yourself “If I were a thief, where would the most valuable attaches and carry-on luggage be?”  Yes, in the Crown, Red Carpet, or Ambassador lounge rooms.  Even if you feel the urge to open your bag and review a recent purchase that made your convention so worthwhile, leave it locked until you arrive at a secure location.  Should you fail to follow this procedure, you have the potential of bringing attention to yourself, that people in the airport will know you have something of extreme value in your case, putting not only your valuables at risk, but also you and your travel companion.

Conservative appearance and actions are a must.  Avoid bringing attention to yourself and your mission.  This is not the time to get into an argument over trivial matters or delays.  A passenger, who is in the same sort of “Air Rage” and calls attention to themselves by rudeness, poor manner or lack of civility, is someone to be avoided.  Move through the airport being as discreet as possible.  Communicate a sense of self-confidence and purpose, head erect and vigilant.

When I first entered the military service, we use to attach a case by handcuff to the courier carrying classified materials or valuables.  Finally, some smart mid-level Pentagon bureaucrat realized that if there were ever a bandit or a spy who wanted what we were carry, they would certainly know who it was that had the “goodies” by looking for the guy with the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.  Not exactly what I would call low-profile travel.  Nowadays, most classified is wrapped in a special paper package and mailed by registered USPS mail.


(The second half of this article will be in the next issue of the NSDR Journal)


Col. Steven Ellsworth is a highly decorated retired Army Colonel with over 32 years of service.  Among his many assignments include in the Army’s Elite Special Forces or Green Berets, as a Ranger and as a Pathfinder.  He has had assignments as a Physical, Intelligence and Communication Security Inspector.  He has received specialized training in antiterrorist, physical intelligence, and personal protective security.  He currently is a full time coin dealer and collector and serves as the American Numismatic Association’s Regional Coordinator for the Mid Atlantic States and is President of the Virginia Numismatic Association.





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