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Crime in Hong Kong

Theft losses aboard Hong Kong-bound flights down 90 per cent as police tout fast reporting by passengers

Seven cases totalling HK$889,000 last year a dramatic drop compared with 22 reports and HK$8.13 million in 2016

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 11:25pm

In-air theft losses aboard Hong Kong-bound flights plunged nearly 90 per cent last year from the previous year, police said, crediting passengers with checking their belongings and reporting suspicions while still on the plane.

The 2017 figures – seven cases totalling HK$889,000 (US$114,000) – represented a dramatic drop compared with 22 reports and HK$8.13 million in 2016, or an 89 per cent reduction in total cash stolen. And compared with 2015, when there were 77 reports and HK$5.11 million missing, the case number was down 90 per cent and the amount lost by 82 per cent.

Recovering stolen property on aircraft landing in the city was vastly easier and more likely when passengers checked their belongings and voiced their suspicions to crew members before disembarking, police advised.

The force arrested two persons last year and 12 in 2016, with all caught before they left the plane.

“We compete with time,” chief inspector Sharon Wong Hau-suen of the airport district’s crime unit explained. “There is a limit to what we can do if a victim reports to us only after leaving the aircraft. The chance of recovering lost items is very slim if the victim doesn’t make a timely report.”

There is a limit to what we can do if a victim reports to us only after leaving the aircraft
police inspector Sharon Wong

Victims of thefts involving overhead lockers on Hong Kong-bound planes were all foreign nationals who stored their cash and property without a lock, police said.

Offenders, who were foreigners or mainland Chinese, targeted long-haul flights thinking it was easier for them to pickpocket as passengers slept when cabin lights were dimmed after mealtimes.

Common tactics saw mile-high criminals taking their victim’s baggage to their own seats or a toilet to search the contents. They either stole the items directly or replaced large US dollar notes in the cash bundle with smaller currency.

Wong said if cabin crew were notified of a suspected theft, they could hold the entire flight upon arrival so that police officers could board and thoroughly search travellers.

“Even if we can’t locate or arrest the suspect, there is a high chance of recovering the lost property as culprits abandon items in toilets or aisles once they know their crime has been exposed.”

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The chief inspector urged passengers to report suspicious passengers to flight attendants.

Last November, a business-class passenger told a flight attendant that US$2,000 and SG$400 (US$305) he had stowed away had gone missing after a suspected culprit touched his baggage in an overhead bin.

Police officers held all passengers on the flight when it arrived in Hong Kong and found the cash lying underneath a seat near the suspect. No arrest was made, however, as no evidence could prove the suspect had stolen the cash.

In a separate case, a male passenger recovered his lost mobile phone in a toilet after a man similarly went through his stowed bag.

Two cases last year leading to arrests were reported by victims and other passengers during the flight. The other five were reported by victims after they exited the airport.

The biggest theft case of 2017 involving a Hong Kong-bound flight saw a passenger lose a diamond ring worth about HK$780,000. No one was arrested and the item was not recovered as the victim reported the case only after she got home.

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The two suspects, arrested last year, are still in judicial proceedings, while the 10 convicted thieves of 2016 received jail terms varying between six and 13 months.

The longest sentence for such a theft in 2016 involved a man caught red-handed in stealing HK$2,820 and 700 yuan (US$110) from another traveller’s luggage.

Under the city’s Theft Ordinance, any person who commits theft could face 10 years in jail.