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TSA cashes in on change left behind at airport security checkpoints

In a mad rush -- or maybe simple absent-mindedness -- travelers left more than $409,000 behind at security checkpoints at U.S. airports in 2010.

The unclaimed money, usually pocket change dumped into plastic bins and bowls in the metal detector lines, is collected by the Transportation Security Administration at security checkpoints at airports across the country.

The left-behind cash stays with the TSA and goes toward its security operations, although there's a push in Congress to give the forfeited funds to the USO to support troops.

For now, security's usual method of pairing lost and found is a friendly shout-out.

"More often than not, our officers will call out to the passenger if they have left something behind so they can retrieve their belongings," said Luis Casanova, a TSA spokesman.

Frequent flier Debbie Maykus of Terrell, Texas, remembers all too well the time she left one of her rings in the plastic bowl at the checkpoint. She walked through the metal detector and grabbed her bag, while the ring sat in the bin. Luckily, a TSA agent called her back in time to pick up her jewelry.

"I now drop my rings and change off in my bag before going through," Maykus said last week at Dallas Love Field.

TSA spokesman Casanova said the agency advises passengers to move coins and loose dollar bills from pockets to carry-ons before going through the screening process. That eliminates the possibility of inadvertently leaving money behind in the bins.

John F. Kennedy International Airport is the top spot for leaving loose change. The New York airport amassed $46,918.06 in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available.

Since 2008, TSA has collected more than $1.2 million at checkpoints, inspiring Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., to champion a bill that would change who gets to keep the cash.

While flying between his congressional district in the Florida Panhandle and Washington, Miller saw money routinely getting left behind at scanner checkpoints.

After learning that TSA kept control of the cash, he introduced a bill that would give the money to the USO instead.

A House committee passed the measure last month, sending it to the full House for action.

"The TSA has been keeping the money from your change purse to pay for their bloated bureaucracy," Miller said in a statement. "If TSA representatives get to play 'finders keepers' with your hard-earned cash, what's the incentive to try and get the loose change to its rightful owners?'

TSA has declined to comment on the legislation, but said it "makes every effort to reunite passengers with items left at the checkpoint."

For Jonathan Lang, a Lubbock, Texas, resident who travels with his guitar slung over one shoulder, the checkpoint routine is simple: Keys, wallet, watch, change and pocket fuzz all go into the rear pouch of his backpack.

"I just throw it all in the bag," he said at Love Field as he headed back home.