NEW YORK, Nov. 19, 2004 — -- Sales executive Rhonda Lege thought her luggage was in safe hands when she flew. That was until gifts for her children were stolen from her bag by security screeners from the Transportation Security Administration.
"It never crossed my mind that the people there to protect me might harm me," she said. "It's kind of a double-edged sword. I really don't know who to trust as I fly."
The nation's airports can now begin hiring private security contractors to screen baggage, rather than relying on the TSA. As many as two dozen airports are expected to make the change.
Created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the TSA has been facing increasing criticism over a rise in thefts from checked luggage.
More than 60 TSA screeners have been arrested for theft at 30 different airports, both large and small. Some have been caught going through bags in full view of airport security cameras -- one is even seen on tape pocketing a gold bracelet.
Officials have only recovered a fraction of what has been stolen and somehow smuggled out of supposedly secure airports.
All that Atlantan Clay Walker had left after his flight was an empty carrying case that once held a $1,300 flat screen video monitor.
"For the last 18 years, I've probably traveled twice a month for work," said Walker, who works for a small production company, "and I've never had anything stolen. Ever."
The TSA has settled 15,000 passenger claims filed over theft by screeners and has paid out $1.5 million in damages.
"The system has a high degree of integrity," said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield. "These numbers, when you look at the overall scope of how many airports we're in, how many bags are being screened each day, it's substantially very small."
But executives in the airline industry and local police officials say the problem is not small at all. ABC News has learned that at New York's three major airports -- John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia -- 400 of the first 2,000 screeners hired had criminal records. In some cases, it seemed that the TSA hired screeners without first completing background checks. In others, screeners were apparently subjected to basic background checks, without detailed follow-up investigations.
In one high-profile case last year, two pieces of custom-made jewelry checked by rap star Lil' Kim went missing. They were returned after an airline worker at JFK airport found the missing valuables wrapped inside a rag in a locker room for airline employees.
The airline industry worries that the first line of defense against terrorism at the nation's airports may be dangerously flawed.
"It's a huge security threat," said aviation industry consultant Michael Boyd. "If we've got the kind of people who would steal things out of bags, we're not sure if we have people on the job who will put things into bags. And obviously we don't have enough scrutiny of the bags once they're checked. It's huge."
The TSA says it has improved background checks for screeners, but regaining the confidence of passengers may be a harder job.
ABC News' Bob Jamieson filed this report for World News Tonight.