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Dude, Where’s My Stuff? A Guide to Recovering Lost Items

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There is perhaps no worse feeling than watching the taxi speed off down the street at the same time you realize you left something in its trunk. Or in the seat-back pocket of an airplane. Or in a public restroom, hotel, mall, or any of the thousands of other places that people leave their personal property every day.

But a loss isn’t necessarily the end of the line. With a little legwork and a lot of luck, it’s feasible to get your stuff back safe and sound—perhaps not always probable, but definitely possible.

At the Airport
If you leave an item on the plane and you’re still in the terminal, you should return to the original gate. That’s because when the plane is serviced, lost items are usually brought to the gate agent. If you’ve left the secure area, go to your airline’s ticketing desk and ask an agent to call the gate (or beg an agent to take you back through security to the gate, which the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] allows). If you left something at a retail space in the airport, LAX recommends contacting the restaurant or shop where the item may have been lost. The TSA runs a special lost and found within each airport, and they hold all items left at security checkpoints. If you leave an item there, contact the airport’s TSA office (contact info is on their website) to inquire about its status and arrange for a pickup. As an absolute last resort, contact the airport’s main lost and found to file a claim, as unclaimed items from planes, gates, and other spaces eventually end up there.

In a Taxi
If Yo-Yo Ma can leave his $2.5 million eighteenth-century cello in a cab and have it back in his possession a few short hours later, there’s hope for all of us. The best thing you can do to reclaim property lost in a cab is to always get a receipt. In cities like New York, where taxi service is maintained by one agency, the first thing to do after a loss is call the city’s taxi and limousine commission and file a report, which includes where you were picked up and dropped off and any other identifying details, such as the cab’s medallion number or the driver’s name. In cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, where cab service is provided by several different independent companies, call the service you used.

New York cab drivers are required to turn in lost property to designated police precincts, so it can also be helpful to file a police report. All cab companies have lost and found departments that you can file claims with as a last resort.

On Public Transportation
Leaving belongings on a subway, bus, or train does not bode well for their safe return. A 2007 study of the New York City subway and bus system found that only about 18 percent of the eight thousand items left on transit vehicles were returned to the owner. The rest, even though they may have been found and turned in to a station agent, never made it to the central lost property office or were never claimed. If you lose something on public transit, file a claim with the transit agency, because in all major city transit systems, lost property is catalogued and stored at a central office. The Chicago Transit Authority recommends waiting until the next day to call or file—sometimes items don’t make it to the lost and found until the driver or train operator has finished his or her shift.

Everywhere Else
If you lose items in hotels, office buildings, restaurants, malls, or just about anywhere else, lost property claims should be made to the security station, information booth, or front desk.

Help Get It Home
Simply trusting fate won’t increase your chances that lost items will find their way back to you, especially since there’s no guarantee that your item will be found by uniformed employees—it could end up in the hands of a stranger who has no intention of returning it. But there are some simple and common-sense steps to take—before and after you lose property—that can help push the odds in your favor.

  • If you lose a cell phone, the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission (NYC TLC) recommends calling the phone right away. Better yet—send a text with information on how to get in touch with you, so that anyone who opens the phone can see your message.
  • Keep baby pictures in your wallet. In the event that it gets lost, they increase the chance that a kindhearted stranger will return it. In 2009, British researchers found that lost wallets that contained pictures of smiling infants were returned to their owners more often than those with pictures of adults or pets.
  • On laptop computers, consider adding a document to your desktop named “IF FOUND” that contains information on how to reach you. If the person who finds the computer turns it on to find out how to return it, they won’t have to dig too far.
  • The website Lifehacker recommends marking cell phones, iPods, laptops, cameras, and other gadgets with labels reading “REWARD IF FOUND,” with an email address to reply to. You’ll be on the hook for the reward, but it’s sure to be less than the cost of replacing the item.
  • Locating items in person is infinitely easier than over the phone. In airports, visit the baggage claim office or ticket counter, find your local transit system’s central office, or do whatever you have to do to speak to a real person.
  • Many cab drivers attempt to return property on their own. The NYC TLC recommends that if you were dropped off at a hotel, airport, or other place of business, try checking with an information booth or security agent there in case the driver brought it back.
  • Be persistent. Cab drivers, airport gate agents, and other workers who come into contact with lost property often do what they can to reunite people with their lost property, but since it’s not their primary job directive and many agencies are short staffed, the proper storage and reporting of lost items sometimes falls by the wayside. Making repeated calls to lost and found offices is more likely to produce results than filing one claim and waiting for a response.

Although kind strangers do what they can to help, they can’t always work miracles, and ultimately we’re all responsible for our own possessions. If you don’t have luck with any of the official channels, the only option left is to check the lost and found on Craigslist, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.


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