Protecting Valuables From Hotel Thieves : Security: It's not enough to merely lock the door to your room. Use the hotel safe and hide costly clothes under casual. : Seek out hotels and motels that provide electronic card-key systems.

WASHINGTON POST

A few months ago, a leather tie case disappeared from my room in an upscale, security-conscious hotel in New York. It was the first loss I've ever experienced on the road, so the incident came as a jolt. It also was a reminder that even when hotel rooms come equipped with high-tech locks and other protective gadgetry, you and your belongings remain vulnerable.

Any well-informed traveler knows it is unwise to leave valuables laying about in a hotel room. But these days, lots of travelers tote such costly items as video cameras, lap-top computers and cellular phones. You don't want to carry these bulky devices with you to dinner, but are they safe in your room? Leather jackets and other costly fashions also have been reported stolen.

And what happens if you do discover something is missing? Can you prove it? It's a touchy matter--since claiming a theft often becomes a question of your word against the word of a hotel employee.

I am convinced my tie case was stolen while my wife and I were out of our room. The hotel security officer, whom I called as soon as I noticed the case was gone, was polite and apologetic. Maybe I'd left the case at home or misplaced it in the room? "Nope," I replied, somewhat miffed. But there was reason for his doubt.

Items reported stolen from hotel rooms frequently turn up in the guest's possession. And there is the not-uncommon possibility that the guest's claim may be fraudulent.

A longtime friend who is the manager and part owner of a busy, mid-priced motel near LAX says his guests occasionally report what he suspects is a fake theft in the hope that the room charge will be waived. But the motel insists that guests notify the police of losses, which the manager believes deters guests with invalid claims. It might also deter guests who decide that the missing item is not worth so much bother.

Ultimately, that's what I concluded. I made my report to hotel security, phoned back a few days later to find out if my case had been recovered--it hadn't--and then bought a replacement. A hotel's liability for items reported missing is limited unless the hotel can be shown to have been negligent.

How serious is the problem of theft from guest rooms? Across the United States, thefts occur with enough frequency to cause concern, say police and lodging industry spokesmen, and occasionally a high-stakes heist from a luxury hotel makes the headlines. But in recent years, as the nation has become acutely conscious of the threat of crime, many hotels and motels have invested heavily in security--both by carefully screening and training employees and by installing electronic locks and safes in guest rooms. You and your belongings are safer in a property where guest security is a top priority for management.

Precise statistics on thefts from guest rooms are hard to come by. "We've looked for that kind of number," says Mary Jo Marvin of the National Crime Prevention Council, "but it's not the kind of information (the lodging industry) likes to release." It is a problem worrisome enough that World Cup officials sought the council's help in preparing a safety brochure--including tips on protecting valuables in a hotel--for foreign visitors coming to the United States for this year's soccer championship.

In an article last year, Security Management, a magazine published by the American Society for Industrial Security, cited unnamed sources in the hotel industry who consider theft from rooms "a common, almost routine problem"--which, it notes, "is exacerbated by guests who leave their valuables unprotected." Not surprisingly, spokesmen for firms that market hotel security devices say many of their customers are located in destinations with a reputation for high crime, such as New York, Miami and Washington. "The problem is pretty prevalent in any major business area," says Joe Rook, vice president for marketing and sales of VingCard, an electronic card lock system.

Hotel thieves may be outsiders who force their way into your room while you are away. Or the thief can be a stranger you have invited to your room, who lifts your wallet before he or she departs. Or it can be a hotel employee. My friend the Los Angeles hotel manager says that in the past 11 years he has had to fire two members of his staff of 64 because they were discovered stealing from guests.

"One thing guests fail to understand," he says, "is that the people who service rooms--the housekeepers and the maintenance men--are not high-salaried people. When a guest leaves an expensive watch in the room, it's like leaving the door open to a world not available to them."

Actually, my friend is quite proud of his staff's record of honesty. In July, guests departing the 154-room property left behind 376 items ranging in value from used toothbrushes to watches and silver belt buckles, all of which the housekeepers turned in to the motel's lost-and-found office. In that month, he received only eight calls from guests in which an item they had missed could not be located, and in these instances the guests were not sure they had left the item at the motel.

To avoid loss of valuables from a hotel room and the hassle of reporting it, consider these safeguards recommended by law enforcement agencies, the lodging industry and other security experts:

* Seek out hotels and motels that provide electronic card-key systems. A safe in the room is a security bonus. So is a hotel or motel in which non-guests can enter only through a front door that leads to the front desk. In addition, Virginia Duncan, a security spokeswoman for Budgetel, maintains that the sort of economy lodging she represents--where there are no bars, restaurants or meeting rooms--is safer because the lack of public facilities keeps non-guests away.

* If you are carrying valuables, place them in the room safe or a safety-deposit box at the front desk. "Better still," says the National Crime Prevention Council, "leave them at home."

* Keep briefcases, computers, cellular phones and similar expensive items out of sight in your room, or check them with the hotel.

* If the hotel issues you two keys, don't leave one in the room. An employee picking up an electronic card key, for example, could use it to return to your room in an off hour, and the printed record would indicate only that it was you who had entered the room.

* Avoid motels where room doors open to the outside, advises Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, author of "Smart Business Travel: How to Stay Safe When You're on the Road" (First Books, $12.95). Instead, find properties where the rooms open to an inside corridor, because they are less likely to be broken into.

* Lock windows and patio doors when you leave your room. Consider doing the same while you are in the shower if you are on the ground floor. And make sure doors to connecting rooms are locked.

* Don't hang one of those tags on your door requesting immediate maid service. It's "an advertisement that your room is presently unoccupied," says Abarbanel. If you haven't fully unpacked, keep your suitcase locked and out of sight.

* Hang a costly or unusual item of apparel in the closet beneath casual clothing.

* Don't flaunt money, jewels or other valuables in public places. It is a temptation to a break-in.

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