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Stolen Laptops: The Numbers Don't Lie (Except When They Do)

A recent article in LA Weekly claimed that over 12,000 laptops were stolen in U.S. airports each week. The figure came from a study conducted by the Penemon Institute, commissioned by Dell Computers. That means 600,000 laptops are stolen in a year. Doesn’t that number seem a bit high?

Be careful of laptop theft and misleading statistics.

Be careful of laptop theft and misleading statistics.

Sure, the airport experience is stressful enough that people might easily misplace their belongings, but almost half a million missing laptops is unbelievable.

The comments section of the LA Weekly article features a response from a TSA Spokesman:

The non-scientific study’s data does not accurately reflect laptops lost at TSA checkpoints and includes laptops lost anywhere in the airport environment including airline ticket counters, terminals and gates… On average, TSA receives approximately 75 lost or missing laptop claims each month, nationwide.

Spokesman Nico Melendez cites flaws in the study’s methodology. Apparently the data was extrapolated from informal interviews at 106 airports. A comment from Los Angeles International Airport’s press relations office claims that the “Airport [Police Department] reports an average of 258 lost or stolen laptops per year… a good portion of these are returned to the owner.”

So what’s the take away lesson here? Well, there’s the reminder that you should be extra careful with your laptop at the airport (here are some tips). But the more important moral is that we should all be discerning readers, judicious in our acceptance of statistics that seem a bit out there. There’s an old saying that comes to mind: “Statistics can be made to prove anything — even the truth.”

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