How States Make Money from TSA Contraband

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Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Swiss Army knives, fuzzy handcuffs and Disneyland snow globes are all items that don’t make it past airport security every day. Instead, they wind up filling states’ coffers.

It may be common for angry travelers to scoff and suggest TSA officers keep items that don’t make it past carry-on screening. But most of the contraband gets turned over to the state at the end of the day. Because agents often have trouble deciding what to do with confiscated items, states are allowed to take possession of them through an agreement. “It [is] of no use to TSA. It’s of no value to them. The cost and care of storage and handling was exceeding the commercial value of it to them,” Scott Pepperman, executive director of the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property, told USA Today.

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About 30 states participate in this exchange, and thus become responsible for the lot. The most sought-after items are exactly what tends to be left behind the most: pocket knives, scissors and corkscrews, which are typically sold in boxes of 100. Grenades, metal throwing stars, and even a box of rocks are some of the junk that ends up in the TSA’s hands, and those can be hard to sell. More innocuous items, like fuzzy handcuffs and Disneyland snow globes, can often wind up in the mix. Many states often end up turning to eBay, their own websites or in-person auctions. If they don’t get sold, they are often donated to local organizations.

Pennsylvania has raised $700,000 from selling truckloads of confiscated items since 2004, including items from New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports. However, TSA contraband is not a big moneymaker for some states. According to USA Today, California only managed to net $9,800 for TSA-confiscated items during one of its quarterly auctions. Alabama received about $15,000 for the whole year, according to a state agency spokesman. And Georgia decided not to collect objects at all in 2008, because it was too much trouble for the state. A Georgia state representative noted, “It was a lot of work for very little return.”

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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