Giving Tuesday December 1 2020

Money Matters: Can they do that? TSA seizes cash

January 17, 2020 01:00

A Massachusetts woman is now part of a class action lawsuit to get her father’s life savings back. The about $82,000 in cash was confiscated from her carryon bag by TSA and the Drug Enforcement Agency as she flew home from visiting her father in Pittsburgh in August 2019.

Neither the woman nor her father are charged with any crime, but their money is gone.

The Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit on her behalf, called the seizure of money at airports a common practice.

A USA Today investigation in 2016 found that “DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the nation’s busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from at least 5,200 people over the past decade.” Justice Department records indicate they seized cash that was believed to be linked to drug trafficking.

There are no legal limits on the amount of cash you’re allowed to fly with within the United States. But federal law allows the government broad discretion to seize cash if there’s evidence it’s linked to a crime. This is called civil forfeiture. Large amounts of cash are often considered suspicious or potentially drug related, but of more than $4 billion seized over ten years, the Justice Department said in 2017, $3.2 billion was never linked to any criminal charges.

In cases like the Massachusetts woman’s, which are a little unusual but fully legitimate, people sometimes get the money back – eventually.

In the meantime, more people are out there with parents or relatives who prefer to keep cash, but may need help managing their money.

Here are some related story ideas for consumer reporters to pursue:
  • What should people who may plan to travel with cash know? Are there more secure alternatives? For example, mailing cash is not a good idea either.
  • How does civil forfeiture work more broadly, federally and in your state?
  • Are there any good financial services or products to help people who tend to prefer cash participate in the banking system?
  • What are the legal, financial or tax implications for helping a parent or relative manage their money?

Weekly Money Matters personal finance content for your newsroom is sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education