Only 3 Of 26 Items Turned In To NYC Transit Workers Made It To The Lost & Found

Investigators for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in NYC gave 26 items to various transit workers in order to see how long it would take for the items to show up at New York City Transit’s lost property claim office. Trouble is, only 3 items showed up at all, and the MTA wasn’t expecting that.

“Obviously, the results are disturbing,” said the inspector general, Barry L. Kluger. He added that the investigation was not meant “as a sting operation” and that it was not possible to know if the missing items were stolen by transit employees or simply “wound up in the bottom of a drawer or in a wastebasket.”

The report said that the transit agency’s lost property unit received more than 8,000 items each year and that only about 18 percent wound up back in the hands of their owners. Most unclaimed items were eventually auctioned off, the report said.

The audit also uncovered a chaotic system for handling property once it is turned in, with few safeguards. Often it can take weeks or months for lost items to make their way to the property unit’s office where people can claim them.

Then there was the case of the lost earring. After it was found, a bus employee put the earring, which was set with what looked like a diamond, into an envelope for transfer to the lost property unit, the report said. But the envelope arrived empty.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the NYPD is conducting something called “Operation Lucky Bag” in which they drop wallets and bags at subway stations and arrest anyone who picks them up and doesn’t walk immediately to a transit worker to turn them over. Over 200 New Yorkers have been arrested, many of them good people who intended to report the item, or track down the owner, but didn’t want to miss their train.

Lost an Item in a Subway? Good Luck for Its Return [NewYork Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. ElizabethD says:

    “the NYPD is conducting something called “Operation Lucky Bag” in which they drop wallets and bags at subway stations and arrest anyone who picks them up and doesn’t walk immediately to a transit worker to turn them over.”

    Did I miss something — is Rudy the mayor again?

  2. Hedgy2136 says:

    I can’t believe they expected any of them to show up.

    As for Operation Lucky Bag, can you say entrapment?

  3. UpsetPanda says:

    This is a tough call…obviously there is a theft problem in the transit system that is a major problem because the workers are supposed to be the people who are there to help prevent theft or to help people get their belongings back. But the people who pick up bags and wallets, I don’t blame them for not wanting to miss their train…some of them are going to work, how do you explain to your boss that you were late because you had to turn in a lost wallet to a transit worker. Chances are, you found the wallet because you were waiting for your train anyway.

  4. Mary says:

    @Hedgy2136: I agree, how are they getting away with this? They can’t prove that the person did or didn’t intend to steal the item. Is this because you should report unattended bags because they might be bombs?

  5. econobiker says:

    A wallet- easy to pick up, probably find owners address inside, and easy to ship. A gym bag- heck not. Who knows what’s inside and difficult to ship.

    As for the transit workers- alot of this stuff is probably auctioned/sold off like unclaimed luggage from the airlines…

  6. vaxman says:

    Kinda seems like the NYPD is a little dirty on that one…

  7. RandomHookup says:

    One of the news magazine shows did a piece in NYC a number of years ago by turning over wallets with ID and various amounts of cash to NYPD and seeing if they contacted the owner. I was amazed at the 100% success rate. In any large system with multiple handoffs and various motivations, it’s amazing that more just didn’t end up lost or “reclaimed” by some someone in the chain.

  8. Beerad says:

    In other news, the sun rose today and is expected to set sometime tonight. I suspect the taxi lost-and-found service works even better than that. But who thought 24 items would be a good sample size? Was it that hard to come up with 50 or even 100 items to misplace and track?

    The “Operation Lucky Bag” program had me both laughing at the absurdity and crying at our overenthusiastic law enforcement. Fortunately, the article (from March 2007) suggests that it’s getting the criticism it deserves and judges are likely to toss the cases. FWIW, I’ve known several people who have recovered wallets and cell phones directly from good samaritans (and I myself returned a cell phone found in a cab a few months ago).

  9. Beerad says:

    @Beerad: Er, 26 items, not 24.

  10. mandarin says:

    What if I picked up garbage instead of a wallet?

  11. Bridger says:

    Several years ago here in Chicago I dropped my wallet on the CTA Orange Line L. After discovering the loss and completing a doctors appointment, I called CTA’s Lost and Found department – about one and a half hours after the loss. My wallet, completely intact was already at the lost and found office at Midway airport. A conductor had found it and turned it in. There are honest transit employees here in Chicago.

  12. DeeJayQueue says:

    @meiran: They’re not. This program came under intense fire the last time they did it, and it’s under similar scrutiny this time. Basically you’ll get caught but your case will get thrown out if you mention the name of the program to the judge.

  13. maztec says:

    So much for the law of finders. Oh wait, first year concept, meh.

  14. Munsoned says:

    The “returned item/properly handled” success rate for this “non-sting” operation is 11.5%. I wonder what the returned-item success rate WOULD have been for those 200 arrests? I have a feeling it would have been more than 11.5%. Goes to show that these hair-brained entrapment schemes are just ridiculous given that most New Yorkers probably know that the transit system can’t/won’t do the job properly itself…

    Is it really “theft” to pick up something that somebody else leaves on the sidewalk if you have the intent of returning it to them?

  15. TechnoDestructo says:

    In light of the unreliability of the lost-and-found system, I think anyone who didn’t take it there is justified.

  16. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    This is why I only lose things in taxis.

  17. bravo369 says:

    I’m appalled by “operation lucky bag”. I was out with friends and we came upon a woman’s bag. My friend who is the most honest law-abiding person i know…and generally a good person took the bag, saw the license and decided that he was going to mail it back to her. He did the right thing. Under that absurd ‘sting’ operation, he would have been arrested. How fair is that?

  18. @TechnoDestructo: Exactly.

    They’re better off mailing it themselves if there is an address available (like a wallet) or taking it to the police if there isn’t an address.

  19. nutrigm says:

    When’s the last time we heard about someone finding a large sum of money and turning it in to the authorities? I don’t remember. It is a fact that people in big capitalist cities are more likely to keep strangers’ properties they found than those living in poor countries like Thailand for example IMO.

  20. hwyengr says:

    @Beerad: The sun in fact did not rise today in Barrow, AK.

  21. sonichghog says:

    I would of got arrested probably under this. I would try to locate the person myself.

    My Wife found someone wallet without ID, it just had 2 credit cards in it and some cash. She looked up the name on google and found the person. Then returned the Wallet. She would of got arrested in NY over it I guess.

  22. Glaven says:

    @nutrigm: It is a fact – really? Could you provide your proof please?

  23. evilkoala says:

    I’ve left 2 items at train stations in Japan and both times the items have been recorded and locatable within a day. Man, this is disturbing.

  24. deadlizard says:

    I have turned two wallets to MTA workers. One to a bus driver on
    72nd and Second Ave. and the other to a worker in the Columbus Circle
    station. They had all their money in it. I doubt now they ever went
    back to their owners. Terrible considering I’ve been the beneficiary of
    a lost wallet return.

  25. ancientsociety says:

    @nutrigm: Proof would be nice. W/o it you’re just spewing propaganda.

  26. superborty says:

    If items given to transit workers go missing, why would one hand them a wallet?? I trust Barry Bonds more than the average transit worker…

  27. ooolam says:

    That’s why last time I’ve found a ring in NYSC locker room, I posted a flyer in the locker room to ask the owner to email me with description of the ring instead of turning it to the front desk. The owner of the ring emailed me and picked it up the next day afternoon.

  28. mollyblack says:

    I know that I wish they would do something similar with airlines. I’ve had a cd case with over $800 worth of cds go missing on United a few years ago and just this summer on an American Airlines flight (first class upgrade since it was only from Austin to Los Angeles) my glasses must have fallen off my lap. I asked them at the gate as I left and they wouldn’t let me back on to look for them and then they kept telling me they would get them to me. Only to find out they had no intention of helping me out, finding them, or if they found them, reporting them to “Lost and Found.” So I have to wait until I have credit in my insurance for another pair of glasses. I even escalated it to see if that might help. I just got a “please accept our apologies.” Meh.

    I don’t think that I have ever had a lost-and-found actually work outside of a bar I used to frequent in SF back in the early 90s. When I left my backpack there with everything, including my money etc, the next day when I went back they had it in the manager’s office waiting for me all secure. And I also had somebody find my purse at a well-known SF cafe on Market Street and they tracked me down to return everything (also in the early 90s).

  29. ooolam says:

    BTW, please don’t think less of New Yorkers because of those MTA workers… last time I dropped my wallet when I went biking on Palisade Parkway, a guy from Brookyln found it and biked all the way to the police station without even taking the money in it.

  30. selectman says:

    @Glaven: It’s a fact that it’s a fact in his opinion. But that’s just my opinion.

  31. UpsetPanda says:

    One day I was leaving home and dropped the credit card payment I was about to mail. My neighbor across the street saw it fall and even though she was on her way out the door, she told me about the mail and helped me look for it.

  32. MBZ321 says:

    I am also surprised that any items came back. If I left a wallet or cell phone on the train, I would consider it gone. But that’s just me…

  33. Now are the people who were arrested arrested for the picking up, or when they were stopped, did the police discover “something else”? Many times people are pulled over for a busted taillight, but arrested for gun possession, drug possession, warrants, etc… I mean, if you think about it, 4 cops doing drops twice a day, that’s 8 people. In less than a month, they would have 200 people. I think they are using it for a pre-tense that you might be a criminal.

    I know NY started busting people for turnstile jumping, and a majority of the people caught had criminal pasts, warrants, etc. It was discovered that people who tend to break larger laws will also break medium sized ones also.

  34. cmdr.sass says:

    @nutrigm: Actually, it happens fairly regularly, if you pay any attention to the news. Don’t let that stop your hate parade, though.

    Anyone caught in Operation Lucky Bag can have the charges thrown out by any competent judge. In most places, you have anywhere from 10-30 days to return found property before it becomes a crime.

  35. kimsama says:

    I think it would be very worthwhile for them to implement a check system with GPS devices in the “lost” items. Then the MTA can really see where all those items that don’t make it to lost and found go (I’ll bet it’s not the trash).

    It would be best to make this an ongoing program and to frequently change the “lost” items, so that the MTA workers would always have a fear of being caught if they stole the items themselves.

  36. kimsama says:

    @nutrigm: Um, I had three friends pickpocketed in Thailand, which seems worse than just taking something someone lost. I myself have had things stolen from me in Southeast Asia twice (out of maybe 4 months there total) as opposed to once in the U.S (decades). Hmm…

    Funniest story: one of my friends was riding a bus in Thailand and fell asleep. When she woke up, her cargo pants’ pockets had been slashed and the contents stolen. Hilarious part? The contents were tampons. I’ll bet the thief was very happy.

  37. Marcus says:

    From the article: “Obviously, the results are disturbing,”

    That should be “Disturbingly, the results are obvious,”

  38. UpsetPanda says:

    An old friend of mine went to France and had her wallet and passport stolen. Theft isn’t limited to one area or another, it’s a big problem pretty much everywhere.

    In Prague, pick-pocketing is their biggest crime problem. Ask some of the residents and they’ll shrug and profess confusion as to why it is such a problem there. I think it’s the (kind of) sudden influx of tourists and European visitors. Prague has become a better attraction in the last decade or so, and more opportunity brings out unsavory types.

  39. mammalpants says:

    the NYC subway thing is entrapment!!!

    this is the exact type of crap that makes honest people, like myself, think twice about being good samaritans.

    it also makes me question the ethics of all police departments.

    shouldn’t we be able to trust them?

  40. RandomHookup says:

    I walked by the customer service window at my nearby subway station (not NYC) and they had 3 driver’s licenses prominently displayed in the window. They’ve been there a few days. I can understand holding on to it for a day to see if you can catch the person, but how about turning it in? That’s what happens with a lot of these … left at the first place it lands.

    There was a chapter in “Steal This Book” about how to scam the lost & found system to get stuff. Not that I recommend that kinda thing.

  41. forgottenpassword says:

    You know… I wouldnt even trust the police to make sure a lost item gets returned to the rightful owner. Either it will end up in some property room awaiting the police auction, lost somewhere, or taken by one of the cops.

    The whole “operation lucky bag” sting was poorly thought out & executed. Just because you dont immediately hand over a found item to some beat cop standing nearby doesnt mean that you are stealing it for yourself. If I’d found a wallet…. I’d try to return it to the owner myself… because I just dont trust people to do the right thing (even the police).

    One thing that just disgusted me is that in the first sting the police didnt like charging the people with only a misdemeanor, so they purposely used credit cards in the sting so that the person could be charged with a felony instead! OUTRAGEOUS!
    Imagine being charged with a felony for picking up a found wallet you planned on returning later.

    Ps. I believe that NY law states that a person has 10 days to turn in lost property…. so the cops were in the wrong IMO by just assuming someone would keep it if they didnt hand it over to some beat cop standing nearby.

  42. sleepydumbdude says:

    I’ve found a couple wallets before. Usually will go to the nearest phone book and if listed then will call them myself before I turn it in. I found one in K-Marts parking lot years ago, had about 80 bucks in it. Called the guy and left a message telling him I found it and was going to turn it into K-Marts customer service and that there were so many credit cards and the amount of money still in it.
    Mainly do that because when I worked at Sears twice I seen employees pocket the money before they turn it in. They’d just walk it to loss prevention through the back where there was no cameras and take the money and whatever else out of the purse or wallet.

    Plus I’m a greedy bastard, I’m always hoping they will answer and be like “SWEET you found my wallet I give you 50 dollars!!!” Hasn’t happened yet though. :(

  43. FromThisSoil says:

    I had no idea that finding something on the floor and walking away with it with the intentions of returning to its rightful owner was an illegal act.

    I would NEVER turn a wallet or anything else with an ID in it to an MTA employee, I trust myself to return it to the rightful owner over a bureaucratic mess like the MTA.

    I’m a big NYPD supporter (in fact I’m wearing an NYPD shirt right now), but come on…

  44. KJones says:

    The “operation lucky bag” arrests remind me of a few cases during the 1980s when drunk driving became a national concern.

    Pigs were arresting people for drunk driving as the people entered their cars, and before they had put the key into the ignition. How do they know that people actually intended to drink and drive? Many people claimed they were getting something out of their cars before going home; some argued successfully, some did not.

    The point is the same: you can’t arrest someone for what they might do, only what they did. Taking the purses or bags onto trains doesn’t constitute theft; never *returning it* is theft.

  45. RvLeshrac says:


    In many locales, it is illegal to be drunk in a vehicle with the keys in an accessible position.

    If you’re going to sleep it off in your car or get something out of it, you should hand the keys to someone else or put them in the trunk (assuming you have a trunk release that works with the ignition off, otherwise you can put them in the glovebox).

  46. hektik says:

    Operation Lucky Bag would have arrested these days. As in some stations you could spend 15 – 30 minutes trying to find an MTA employee.

    I found a wallet in a phone booth in London once. We went through it, found the business card for the woman who owned it (she was from the states), called her office and left a msg saying we were giving it to the police. It seemed she had the type of job where she’d be checking her messages remotely.

  47. hektik says:

    ugh – “would have many people arrested these days.” Submitting without reading. Sorry.

  48. trollkiller says:

    I read about Operation Lucky Bag a few weeks ago, it is even more heinous than the linked article suggests. In the article I read the police would set the bait and then have a uniformed officer standing near. If you passed the officer without turning the bag over then you were arrested. In the article I read it said they were using real credit cards to bump the charges up to a felony. (just tried to verify about the credit cards but was unable to find the article)

    Now maybe I am strange, but if I am in a place like a mall or a subway station I would not even thing about bothering a uniformed cop to turn in a lost item, I would simply take it to the information booth so it can go to lost and found. A lost wallet or bag is not a police matter.