As soon as Ambre Boroughs' suitcase came off the conveyor belt at the airport in her home city of Charleston, South Carolina, she says she knew there was a problem.
"When we arrived it was the first bag off the conveyor belt," she said. "I picked it up and it was completely empty."
The suitcase was a laptop bag, where she stored her new HP 9000 laptop. Boroughs said she decided to check the bag on her March 2011 flight rather than carry it on because her first leg of the trip was crowded. The airline's promotion of its "Bags Fly Free" campaign helped make her decision, she says.
"It was an absolute ordeal. We were like Boarding Group B... We were at the very back and there was no room to put our baggage anywhere," she recalled of her flight from Charleston to Chicago. "I just decided that we were going to check all our bags on the way back because it was free. Otherwise I never would have done it."
Her laptop missing, Boroughs said she tried to enlist help from the Southwest representative on duty.
"She immediately told me Southwest was not responsible for checked computers and she wanted to know why I had checked my computer, which was a real clincher," Boroughs said.
The agent in Chicago who checked her in, she said, did ask her if the bag had a computer in it, but did not explain the airline’s policy.
Boroughs said the Southwest employee sent her home with little hope.
"They just say you are out of luck," she said.
But Boroughs had a hunch, and she followed it. At home in Charleston the next morning, she went where she thought a thief might -- and logged onto Craigslist. She searched the term "HP 9000" in the Chicago category. About 12 hours after discovering her laptop was stolen, she got a hit.
"When I right-clicked on the picture, it was mine," she said. Visible in the picture taken by the seller was a small sticker with the logo of the "33’s." The logo matches one tattooed on Boroughs’ wrist -- from her favorite South Carolina band, a small and obscure punk rock group.
She said her first text to the seller was immediately answered. In subsequent phone calls, the seller told her he had many laptops for sale.
"He asked me, 'Which computer?' and I said, ‘Well, how many do you have for sale?’ and he said, ’10 or 15,'" Boroughs told NBC Chicago.
Her own detective work located the stolen property. When she called Chicago police to tell them she located her stolen laptop, she says detectives took over. They went to the seller’s house and posed as Boroughs, then arrested three people at the home, none of whom work for Southwest.
Details from the arrest report that day itemize laptops and electronics "removed from checked luggage of ticketed passengers on Southwest Airlines at Midway."
But getting those items back to the other supposed victims never happened. In court six months later, a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney admitted investigators were not able to match up the other allegedly stolen laptops and electronics to any owners. Is that because Southwest does not track the thefts reported by passengers?
In a statement to NBC Chicago, a Southwest spokesperson said the airline takes a theft report only if a passenger chooses to file one. The airline does not require its employees to warn passengers who are checking items that are not covered in its Contract of Carriage rules. Southwest said its policies are similar to those of other major carriers and that in this case, its employees stayed in touch with Boroughs until her laptop was relocated. Southwest says it works closely with law enforcement when thefts do occur.
Online, other SWA customers have reported similar stories. In September of this year, a passenger from Bartlett, Ill., alleged a laptop, GPS and jewelry were stolen from her checked luggage while in Southwest’s custody. She called the process to contact someone at Southwest "ridiculous." The airline denied her claim, saying her items were not covered by its contract.
For her part, Ambre Boroughs said she feels like she won the battle, but lost the war. Her laptop was scrubbed of all her documents and photos by a thief, and she worries it could be happening to more passengers.
"I asked them if they have cameras on their baggage handlers and they said no… I asked them, 'Do you search when they come or when they leave the airport?’ And the answer was no," she said.
The Transportation Security Administration does use cameras, and said it checked the video in this case when it received Boroughs’ report. In a letter to Boroughs, the TSA said her laptop was still inside the suitcase it passed through security. The agency said it then passed the luggage back to Southwest.
Of the three arrested in this case, two had their charges dropped by prosecutors. One, Jonny Davido, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of theft of lost or mislaid property.
Cracking the case was satisfying, Boroughs said, and if she lived closer she might have snagged a new job. She says the Chicago detective in charge of the case complimented her work.
"He asked me if I needed a job," she said with a chuckle.