Dh70,000 Rolex 'stolen' on flight: UAE passengers recount horrors of losing valuables mid-air

An expat said that one of his cards had been used to make a fraudulent transaction of Dh18,803


Meher Dhanjal

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Published: Wed 22 May 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 22 May 2024, 11:32 PM

"I completely blacked out when I saw that my cash and Rolex were missing from my bag," former UAE resident Arsalan Hameed told Khaleej Times, while recounting his recent journey from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh via Doha.

The Pakistani national was visiting his family in Abu Dhabi for Eid and struggling to return home to Saudi Arabia, where he lives now, due to record rains impacting flight operations from the UAE. After multiple flight delays and cancellations, he says he boarded a crowded flight to Doha, exhausted from his journey.

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He stored his bag in the overhead bin, and promptly fell asleep – something he says he has "a habit" of doing while flying, since he travels a lot. Upon landing, he quickly boarded another flight to Riyadh and, not bothering to check if his valuables were still in his carry-on baggage, fell back asleep after storing his backpack in the overhead bin.

According to Hameed, it was only when he reached home that he "realised his watch worth Dh73,000, as well as cash worth SAR3,000 and GBP260 (approximately Dh4,000) were stolen" during his journey of 2.5 hours.

Unfortunately, he is not the only person who has reported such an experience — and while these incidents occur across the world, UAE travellers have of late been taking to social media to warn fellow passengers to be more aware.

Sharjah resident Muhammad Salman Lakhany is one such person. After a short flight from Riyadh to Dubai in May this year, the expat said that one of his cards had been used to make a "fraudulent transaction of Dh18,803" (screenshot below). "Upon checking my carry-on bag, I saw that my card along with $1,900 in cash was missing."

'Coordinated thefts'

Khaleej Times spoke to a UAE-based former cabin crew member to understand how common such incidents are. "General petty thefts aren't that commonplace on board flights, especially because of the gruelling security processes in place," said Bhavica Khatri. "However, when they do happen, they take place in a coordinated fashion."

In her career spanning more than a decade, the Dubai resident who now works as an entrepreneur and artist, said that she has only been on two flights where organised groups attempted to steal from other passengers. These incidents usually occur on night flights, when the lights are off, people are asleep, and cabin crew retreat to their galleys.

"Very recently, around 3-4 years ago, there were thefts happening on one particular route – a long-haul night flight of 16-17 hours," she recalled. When investigations took place, it was found that this group of people would "come alive" once the lights had been turned off. The offenders would open up the stow bins and pretend to look for something that they had 'lost or misplaced'.

"They sat separately; it's not like they acted like they were all together. One would act like they misplaced something, and the other would try to help them. In that way, they would try to open different hat racks and put their hands through bags, small purses, and luggage to get whatever they want," Khatri explained.

UAE airlines that Khaleej Times reached out to declined to comment.

Suspect theft? What you can do

"Ideally, if a passenger realises that they have been victims of theft while still in the flight, they should first inform cabin crew discreetly. Cabin crew are trained to deal with such situations in a calm and professional manner," says Manoj Tahelani, CEO and Founder of Mayra Tours. He added that if the unfortunate discovery is made only once they are back on the ground, passengers must inform local authorities at the earliest.

Lakhany said that once he received the notification of fraudulent transaction, he immediately blocked all his cards and reported the crime online. "The police asked me to head to the nearest police station, so I did. There, at the Al Qusais Police station, I spoke to two officers, who asked me to return with a bank report."

Meanwhile, he says, the thieves had tried to withdraw more cash — worth Dh15,000 — but were only unable to because of the limit on his card and because he had blocked the others by then.

Hameed, unfortunately, has not had the same luck. "I have reached out to several authorities to no avail," he said. When he reported the theft to the airline, he was informed that "all customers are responsible for their personal possessions that remain in their care while they are on-board the flight".

How cabin crew respond

Cabin crew are taught to "observe, report and escalate", Khatri said. "We don't have the right to tell a passenger that their hand is on someone else's bag. However, we have been trained to ensure that there is no security lapse. If we are suspicious, we are to inform the manager on board who, in turn, informs the captain of the flight. The captain then informs security on the ground to take the necessary steps once we land."

Authorities will usually board the plane and either "do their whole drill" or conduct a check "under the guise of someone 'losing their passport'". Sometimes, if authorities have been tracking a group of suspicious people on the same flight where a theft is reported, they will approach them directly and "take them aside for further investigation".

How you can stay safe

Travel experts in the UAE have offered some tips on how passengers can safeguard themselves from potential theft.

"Make sure to always get travel insurance," says Bharat Aidasani, managing partner, Pluto Travels. He also urged travellers to keep their valuables with them as it "can be a challenge" if they keep the belongings in a check-in or carry-on bag.

Mir Wasim Raja, manager for MICE and holidays at Galadari Brothers' International Travel Services, also shared the below tips as part of an "ultimate safety guide".

  • Don't wear flashy jewellery
  • Be smart with your money
  • Invest in a good bag that suits your needs and preferences
  • Bring travel locks and always use them for check-in baggage and luggage
  • Use a Smart Tag or luggage tracker if you are carrying valuable items
  • Always keep an eye on your carry-on baggage
  • Keep digital copies of important documents
  • Stay aware of your surroundings
  • Trust your instincts and don’t ignore things if you see anything suspicious


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