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I Was a TSA Agent for 2 Years—and This Is Why You’re Getting Stopped at Security

There are so many rumors swirling around the TSA: Did they flag me because they wanted to do the full-body search? What exactly do they see when we walk through the x-rays? And why do I always get flagged? Reader's Digest got the intel straight from a former TSA agent.

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Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers staff a checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport on March 15, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.
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The dark truth

TSA Agents have been trained to spot little known red flags. Ever wonder why you’re always getting stopped? I’ll tell you all the secrets. Richard is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity.

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A Transportation Security Administration agent looks at travelers in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport November 2, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
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There’s always a reason

You aren’t allowed to stop someone going through security without a reason: that’s the rule. That means you can’t simply stop someone because you get a bad feeling about them; you have to have a specific reason why you have that bad feeling. Newer agents are always nervous because they don’t want to stop someone who doesn’t need to be searched because they could get in trouble for not having a valid reason. Find out what a TSA agent notices first about you.

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close up of woman's face and eyes. looking to the side. gray background.
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We’re trained to look at your eyes

The first thing we look at is not your outer appearance, rather we look at where you’re looking. If you’re nervously looking around, you look suspicious, even though you could be doing because you’re scared of something. So if your eyes are darting around as you’re walking through security, that gives us a reason to stop you.

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portrait of a disheveled man. gray background.
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We can tell if you’ve had too much to drink

If someone is intoxicated, their balance is off, they wobble a bit, or slur their words—or it could be a sign of a stroke. In most airports, it’s the law that if you’re too intoxicated, you’re not allowed to board the plane, but that’s up to each pilot, not us. The only reason why we would keep a seemingly intoxicated person at security is that they’re at a point where they can’t hold their balance. FYI, here are other odd reasons you can get kicked off a plane.

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anonymous man in a white tank top. gray background
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Avoid tank tops

Tank tops on men are frowned upon, especially in Europe. For starters, it’s not the proper attire to fly in, but the bigger issue is, for men, there’s a lot of testosterone in the air, so we’d keep an eye out on that person. That said, there’s no reason just to keep a guy because he’s wearing a tank top, but we’d watch him more closely. You also may want to avoid wearing some specific jewelry to avoid this mistake in the TSA line.

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anonymous woman doing a squat. gray background.
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We might make you do squats

If we have a big suspicion about someone, we make you do squats. The human body can’t hold anything [like drugs] up the rectal area if you do three to ten squats—it’s impossible to hold it in. So if the search dogs approach someone, we’ll make them do squats. Here’s how you can get back (legal) items TSA confiscated from you.

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A Transportation Security Administration worker pats down a traveler September 22, 2004 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
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Don’t be wary if the alarm goes off

Most of the metal detectors are designed to go off as every tenth passenger walks through them regardless of if they detected metal or not. Try not to be offended if you are selected for an additional security check. If you are, try to always treat people positively and be humble and do everything that’s asked of you. If you cause any trouble, that’s the largest suspicion.

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A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worker screens luggage at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) on September 26, 2017 in New York City.
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We can—and will—make you miss your flight

If you yell at a TSA agent or curse at them, they can make your life worse by making you miss your flight. If I report you to my higher standing officer because you weren’t nice, my higher standing officer can keep you for a pretty long time. It pays off to be nice to people. Find out 12 things your TSA agent isn’t telling you.

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hand holding gold chain. gray background.
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Some metals don’t beep

For gold to set off the scanner, you’d have to carry more than ten pounds of it, so keep your gold chains on. If you have a knee held together with aluminum bolts, that won’t set off the scanner either, so no need to tell us about those.

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Transportation Security Administration Security Officer Nyamsi Tchapleu looks at images created by a "backscatter" scanner during a demonstration at the Transportation Security Administration's Systems Integration Facility at Ronald Reagan National Airport December 30, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia.
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Don’t be embarrassed by the full-body scans

We really aren’t looking for anything private (in the way you might be embarrassed about) and we can’t see anything specific in that area. All we see is your outline and any metal or suspicious item that you may be carrying. Want more info? Here’s what airport body scanners really see.