Every 12 seconds, someone steals a towel from a Holiday Inn. That's about 10 per room every year -- more than 2.7 million smuggled from that hotel chain alone.

But managers aren't throwing in the towel. They are fighting back with subtle -- and not so subtle -- measures aimed at discouraging you from taking their precious linen.

At the Holiday Inn World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., every room has a small cardboard sign with a cartoon of smiling towels that says: "The other day, our towels told us that some of them were being kidnapped and taken to faraway places. So, we adopted some new ones and now everyone's happy again. Now you wouldn't want to break up a new family, would you? Thank you for caring."

Guests at the Thunderbird Motel in Bloomington, Minn., are greeted with similar cards that list the name of their housekeeper and itemize the number of washcloths, hand towels, bath towels and bathmats in each room. "Guests are accountable for any linen shortages," declare the cards in bold letters.

The John Rolfe Motel in Williamsburg, Va., has an even tougher warning posted inside the door of each room: "The contents of this room are checked before and after being occupied. Anything missing is reported to the police. Your car license is on record."

At these hotels and others around the country, managers are fighting back against guests who have been taking towels as if they were matchbooks.

How serious is the problem? According to housekeepers and industry executives, guests walk off with about 10 percent of the towels at budget hotels like Holiday Inn and Ramada, about 6 to 8 percent at medium-level inns like Marriott and Hyatt and only a handful at finer places like the Ritz-Carlton and the Hay-Adams.

Unless you take an entire set of towels or a queen-sized mattress, it's unlikely a hotel will track you down. Towel theft is just another "expense of doing business," according to Jim Moyer, vice president for loss prevention for Marriott Hotels and Resorts.

Methods to discourage the white-cotton crime, however, are not without their own problems.

Although the Thunderbird Motel has received dozens of complaints about its direct, "Guests are accountable for all linen shortages" card, executive housekeeper Dimple Miller says it works.

"It causes some irritation, but we feel it shows them that we are checking." The Thunderbird loses very few towels, she says, compared to her previous hotel, which did not use the cards.

The quaint John Rolfe Motel seems an unlikely candidate for its sternly worded warning. Manager Nita Hutchinson says the signs went up as a precautionary measure in 1979 even though nothing had been stolen. Since then, only a handful of towels has been taken. In one case, a woman mailed back four washcloths with an apologetic letter that said they had been packed by mistake.

"They see that we are very small and family-owned," says Hutchinson. " They are the type of people who don't take towels. I've worked in bigger hotels where we've had people take everything from ashtrays to bedspreads. That's a problem I haven't had here."

But many hotels say the direct approach is offensive to guests. "For a hotel chain like Hyatt, it's too tacky. It's more forward than anything we would use," says Marcia Holstrom, assistant housekeeping manager at the Hyatt Arlington in Rosslyn. "Our business is making guests happy."

"I can't see doing anything that drastic. It's threatening the guest," says Helen Spicer, executive housekeeper of the Bethesda Ramada Inn.

The Holiday Inn World's Fair first tried the tough approach, but switched to the softer cartoon cards after complaints from guests. "People were offended -- like you were accusing them of stealing," says general manager Fred Hirschovits.

The new card is more indirect, but it still leaves you with a firm impression that the hotel is very aware of towel theft, and that they just might come after you if you tuck a washcloth into your overnight bag.

According to executive housekeeper Margie Kincaid, the sign has cut theft by 30 percent.

Finer hotels and those catering more to business travelers claim that towel theft is not much of a problem, and that it would be inappropriate to put signs in their rooms.

"It's not really a problem with us," says Jessica Miller, director of public relations for Hilton International/Western Hemisphere. "Most of our guests are fairly high-level business travelers. They are more interested in light luggage than they are in owning another towel."

If Hilton were to use the signs, "Our guests," she says, "would find that they were being judged before the trial."

Although upper-scale hotels have had fewer problems with towel theft, they have noticed the disappearance of terry cloth in another form: bathrobes. In a preemptive strike to combat the theft of robes without offending their guests, some hotels now place cards in the pockets offering the robes for sale (about $50-$100). Addition of the cards, says Colleen Evans, director of public relations for the Vista International in Washington, has "drastically" cut down on robe theft.

*Another subtle technique to discourage theft is the use of plain white towels, a device that the Capitol Hill Quality Inn says has helped cut down thefts for them.

*"Most people will not use plain white towels at home, because everybody's bathroom is a certain color," says executive housekeeper Leyla Lehrer. "They don't like white."

But even though they are white, about 1,400 towels still disappear every year from the 341-room hotel.

*Most bath towels cost hotels about $5 each and can exceed $10 at fancier places. So if the average room loses about 10 towels a year, that can run up to $10,000 in losses for a medium-sized hotel of 200 rooms.

Generally, such costs are passed along to the consumer in the form of higher rates -- something you might remember if you get the urge to pad your suitcase.