The Strange Travel Saga of Lost & Found

PHOTO: A Lost and Found sign is seen in this undated photo. Stuart Gregory/Getty Images
A Lost and Found sign is seen in this undated photo.

"The oddest item ever left on one of our planes?" mused Virgin America's Jennifer Thomas. "I think it has to be the embalmed baby shark."

Which goes to show you never know what people will leave on a plane. Or at the airport. Or in the rental car.

Here's a look at some of the odder things people lose, where these strays end up and how to get them back.

"We care about reuniting our customers with their belongings," said JetBlue's Tamara Young and I think it's fair to say she speaks for all the airlines. The vast majority of missing bags are returned to owners, with only a tiny fraction gone for good. Quick aside: A Southwest employee told us on rare occasions, people don't want their "found" items back. Apparently, some things are abandoned on purpose (and theories I've heard suggest battered suitcases that have outlived their usefulness and are largely empty).

As for things people do want back, it gets tricky when there are no identifying labels. Airlines do their best to find the owners but can't hold items indefinitely so after a set period of time, they get rid of stuff. In some cases, that means donating items to charity. JetBlue waits 90 days and if the owner isn't found, sends the unclaimed baggage to - where else? - the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

This one-of-a-kind store in Scottsboro, Ala., offers an amazing array of oddities from airlines, rental car agencies, buses and more. A few samples:

• 50 vacuum packed frogs • 5.8 carat diamond ring (found in a sock) • 40 carat emerald (priced at $16,000 and eventually sold to a collector) • Bearskin packed in salt (which reportedly smelled every bit as bad as you might imagine) • Camera from a space shuttle (it was returned to NASA) • Shrunken head (I've written about this before) • Mummified hawk dating to roughly 2,000 B.C. • Limoges vase which sold for $80 (and was later valued at $18,000)

According to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, "The number one reason a bag ends up lost is a missing or inaccurate I.D. on the bag."

So let me ask a question: Do you have any sort of ID on your electronics? Will that "find me, I'm lost" app work if your device is turned off? Most of us probably don't have serial numbers written down anywhere but maybe it's time we did. Either that or Velcro the devices to our sleeves.

And what about items with no identification whatsoever? Experts say a detailed description is essential for reunification, but I wonder how many of these pleas on a Lost & Found board for JFK get answered?

• "Lost, a little black Betty Boop bag, inside was a gray Master Card, pesos and contraceptives." (Can't fault this report for lack of details).

• "Froggy is old, floppy, green and about 18 inches long." (This SOS about a stuffed animal was signed, Frogless in Vegas)

• "This is a long shot but has anyone has seen my hippo?" (A tiny charm)

Here's what to do if something does go missing. First, check your belongings frequently so you can pinpoint where you were when you lost the valuable. Don't forget vehicles, either: Dollar Rental Car agencies have long lists of "found" items ranging from scores of prescription sunglasses (the West Palm Beach office) to an amazing array of electronics (at the San Jose, Calif., office).

Next step: Report a loss immediately. If your bag is missing or you think you left something on a plane, don't leave the airport without filling out the proper documentation.

Other good suggestions from those who toil in lost and found departments:

1. Be able to provide serial numbers for electronic devices (if possible) or at least the passcode for a locked smartphone or tablet, says Virgin America. The airline says it has "massive charging stations" in many of its airport baggage offices so they can power up devices to try and sleuth out ownership.

2. Know the color, brand, and description of the lost item, even something as simple as a Teddy bear or anything else that falls under the hard-to-identify category.

3. Be able to describe the contents of a missing wallet or purse; the more unique items you can name such as currency, descriptions of any photos or cosmetic brands, the better.

4. Label all valuables in advance (initials on the paw of a stuffed animals might work).

Unfortunately, stuff happens and sometimes missing items are gone for good. But not the embalmed baby shark. Maybe. A Virgin America spokeswoman said she was "pretty sure" he eventually made it home safely.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.