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Crime in the Suites

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Portfolio.com: Business Travel
Portfolio.com
Tuesday, October 14, 2008; 12:00 AM

On a trip to Londona few years ago, security consultant Bruce McIndoe had a few hours to kill after checking out of his hotel room. So he left his luggage with the bell captain-something most business travelers do without a second thought.

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But McIndoe does think about it now, for when he returned that afternoon, he discovered his bags had been stolen. "They said they were very sorry, but their luggage closet had overflowed and so they threw a few bags out in a hall unattended," he recalls.

McIndoe knows he has plenty of company: As president of Maryland-based Ijet consultants, which advises corporations on protecting employees and property around the world, he's heard many tales of theft, petty and otherwise, at some of the world's better hostelries. Once, he learned that at a five-star resort in the Bahamas, a gang had been stealing items from guests while they lazed by the pool. "The hotel was aware of it and was quietly dealing with it, but yet they did nothing to alert their guests," he says. "The bottom line is that hotels have little interest in ensuring that their guests don't get pilfered."

That's one reason it's hard to say just how common hotel crime is-they have little incentive to draw attention to problems, and most local law-enforcement authorities lump such incidents in with general statistics on crime. (More than a decade ago, the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey found that the rate of crimes against travelers was 127.8 per 1,000 people, versus 213 crimes per 1,000 in the general population.) And unless the loss is substantial, travelers often choose not to pursue their grievance once they're back home. But anecdotes abound-both about theft and the lack of response from hotels.

Hotels can usually duck legal responsibility for theft on their property, and victims of theft are often met with indifference or even skepticism from managers, especially since guests may be unable to offer hard proof that they were in fact carrying the valuables that are now gone.

When McIndoe examined the fine print on his claim check, he was startled to learn it absolved the hotel-a full-service luxury property-of all responsibility. Although the hotel eventually offered some compensation, he was struck by how little protection consumers have in such circumstances. Now, he says, he always verifies that his suitcase will be in a locked room while it's out of his sight.

But even cautious travelers may be tripped up. Melanie Graczyk, a loan officer with Access National Mortgage in Roanoke, Virginia, thought she knew all the rules: She's a frequent traveler, and her husband worked for years in the hotel business. When she stayed in the brand-new HiltonGarden Inn in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, last year, she was surprised to find that there were no safes in the room, so she hid $600 in cash in her drawer. During her stay, workmen entered her room to fix a broken air conditioner. Soon after that, she noticed the money was gone. She immediately reported the loss to the front desk. "They told me I could walk to the police station and file a report," she said. "The reactions I got ranged from total indifference to almost accusatory." She followed up with letters and emails and finally heard from an insurance-company representative who said that under New Hampshire law, the hotel was not liable. (A manager at the property told Portfolio.com that the security was "very good," and she felt that the incident had been handled appropriately. In addition, the hotel states on its registration form that safety deposit boxes are at the front desk.)

"It is a major problem," says Madeline Lee Bryer, a Manhattan attorney who has represented victims of hotel muggings, including a businesswoman from Canada who suffered a broken jaw in a push-in robbery at New York's Paramount Hotel eight years ago; the attacker was later caught and sent to jail, and Bryer sued the hotel for failing to provide adequate protection. (The suit was settled; Paramount did not respond to requests for comment.) Bryer says that hotels don't see security as a "moneymaking proposition" because there's little advantage to be gained by raising a subject that would only stir negative feelings on the part of their customers. "They want people to be lulled into this false sense they're in the protective arms of this pleasant environment," she adds.

Of course, that is exactly why thieves prey on hotel guests; it's hard to imagine a more tempting target than a group of people uprooted from their familiar surroundings, trying to relax or distracted by travel hassles, many of them carrying valuables. The hotel industry, for its part, says they address security, but discreetly. "A lot of hotels added more security after 9/11; it is just that many customers don't see it," says Joe McInerney, head of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington. With a few exceptions, such as Las Vegas' Bellagio, where guards inspect your key before you enter an elevator, hotels prefer their security to be invisible. Common measures include posting security cameras in more locations, especially in corridors and near elevators; positioning uniformed and plainclothes security guards in public areas and at entrances, and performing more intensive background checks on employees. (Electronic key cards have made it harder for unauthorized persons to enter guest rooms but doesn't necessarily protect against inside jobs.)

"You don't want consumers to think they are in an armed camp," McInerney says.

Travelers are often surprised by the lack of sympathy they encounter when they report a crime. Jane Eccles, an artist who was traveling last year with her consultant husband, says she was rebuffed when several hundred dollars worth of jewelry was stolen from her room at a conference center in Princeton, New Jersey. The couple had packed their bags and left them in the room while they grabbed breakfast in the dining room. When Eccles opened her suitcase shortly after leaving the property, she discovered the theft and immediately contacted the hotel, but was told there was no evidence that anyone other than the guests had entered the room. "They said they were covered, and that was it," Eccles says.

Bryer says that most state laws appear to back the lodging industry in disclaiming responsibility for theft. Moreover, some hotel sources say that if they were always to accept their guests' versions of events, they could open themselves to a wave of false claims and insurance fraud.

Some hotels are making security a priority; Marriott is introducing automatic dead bolts at many of its properties and has a policy of investigating "any and all thefts" against guests, says Roger Conner, a spokesman for the chain. He claims these measures and the secure keys have dramatically reduced guest-room theft, although he would not provide actual figures. We might be left in the dark, but avoid being left in the lurch with these tips on security.


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