Hotel crime rises in recession, but hotels say they're still safe

ByGary Stoller, USA TODAY
May 17, 2009, 11:21 PM

— -- Mary Catherine Tubbs was an experienced hotel manager, but that didn't save her from becoming a crime victim at a hotel 10 years ago.

Like two women tied up last month in New England hotel rooms by an assailant dubbed the "Craigslist killer," Tubbs was tied up by a man who followed her into a hotel room in Northbrook, Ill.

He threw her to the floor, tied her hands behind her back with a bathrobe sash, put a pillowcase over her head and choked her.

"I resisted vigorously, and he left," says Tubbs, a hospitality consultant in Nashville, who managed hotels from 1990 to 1998.

More than a billion travelers stay at U.S. hotels each year, and some, like Tubbs, become victims despite the sense of security that locked doors, surveillance cameras and hotel staff provide. And now that the country is in recession, several veterans of hotel security say, there's a greater likelihood that what happened to Tubbs could happen to other travelers.

"We're absolutely seeing an increase in crime at hotels," says Philip Farina, CEO of Enterprising Securities, a San Antonio company that designs security programs for hotels.

Security industry veterans like Farina say that the hard economic times are especially driving up incidents of theft, including the amount perpetrated by hotel staff. Hard times are also prompting cuts in security at some hotels. As a result, they say, guests must take more responsibility for their own safety by being more vigilant when they arrive and after checking in.

"The current (economic) downturn is associated with significant cuts in security," says Dave Wiggins, a member and former president of the California Tourism Safety & Security Association. At the same time, he says, hotel employees are working fewer hours and making less money, which "may be pushing some otherwise honest people toward dishonest behaviors."

Many in the hotel industry dispute that hotels are any less safe now, especially after security was beefed up following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, disagrees with the security experts. He says there is no evidence crime is on the rise.

John Wolf, spokesman for Marriott International, says, "The incidence of crime within our hotels remains far below the rest of society."

Car break-ins also a problem

The fact is nobody knows how much crime is committed in hotels vs. elsewhere. Police don't keep statistics on that, and no hotel companies responded to USA TODAY's requests for crime data. However, hotel security experts such as Farina estimate that at least one crime may occur daily in a big-city hotel. And, they say, most are thefts.

A 2009 study that examined crimes reported by 64 Miami Beach hotels to the Miami Beach Police Department in 2002 and 2003 shows that theft is the chief problem.

The study, authored by criminology professors at Ball State University and a hospitality professor at Florida International University, found 756 crimes against guests were reported during the two years. The hotels, meanwhile, reported that they were the victims in 84 crimes — primarily burglaries.

Nearly half those crimes against guests were thefts, and 38% occurred in the hotel rooms. Car break-ins in hotel lots represented 13% of the crimes. More crimes occurred in the afternoon than any other time during a day.

Insurance claims also don't give an accurate gauge of how much theft occurs.

Richard Dahm, whose division of Wells Fargo Insurance Services insures about 50 Florida hotels primarily in Tampa, Clearwater and Sarasota, says each hotel files a couple of claims a year for crimes involving guests.

Hotels, though, may not file insurance claims just as they may not report crime to police, Farina says. "Hotels are notorious for wanting to protect their brand or image," he says.

Michael Brown, a Ball State criminology professor and co-author of the Miami Beach crime study, says guests also may not make reports.

"Hotel guests may also assume that they misplaced their items or the lost property is not worth the time and hassle to report the incident to hotel staff or police," Brown says.

Brown says that while there are no reliable data, "Research strongly suggests that most hotel crimes are committed by hotel employees."

Security in parking facilities

In many instances, it's easy to do. An employee at a luxury San Antonio hotel was arrested last year for stealing iPods and other items from guest rooms, says Farina, who wouldn't identify the hotel. The employee also ripped out checks from the middle of guests' checkbooks, apparently hoping the thefts would go undetected, he says.

But hotel employees certainly aren't entirely to blame, and guests have to bear some responsibility. Hotel parking facilities, which may be owned by a hotel, a municipality or a contractor, are vulnerable, too, if people leave their belongings in their cars.

Frequent business traveler Matthew Daecher of Harrisburg, Pa., says his 2006 Chevrolet Impala was broken into in September in the parking garage at Hilton Garden Inn in Secaucus, N.J. The car's door handle was pried away to access the lock.

"I guess it didn't go as quickly as planned, because they didn't get in and just damaged my car," says Daecher, the president of a transportation risk consulting company. "Or they decided to concentrate on the truck next to my car, where they did get in and stole a laptop and other items."

Hotel crime can be violent, too, as the "Craigslist killer" crimes at New England hotels pointed out.

Prosecutors in Suffolk County, Mass., have accused Boston University medical student Philip Markoff of tying up and robbing a prostitute at gunpoint in the Westin Copley Place hotel on April 10 and fatally shooting a 25-year-old masseuse April 14 at the Boston Marriott Copley Place.

The women reportedly met their assailant by posting ads for their services on the Craigslist classified advertising website. Prosecutors in Rhode Island allege that two days after the killing in Boston, Markoff assaulted a prostitute at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites in Warwick, R.I.

Markoff has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. And Marriott International did not comment on the slaying at its Boston hotel. Marriott takes "the safety and security of our guests very seriously," and its hotels have "many protections and procedures" in place, spokesman Wolf says.

But those incidents aren't isolated ones.

A woman was allegedly raped May 1 at the Radisson Hotel Boston parking garage by the same man who allegedly raped another woman in the garage on April 19. Jose Ruben Rivera III, who is homeless, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Two gunmen killed a man and a teenage boy, and wounded three others, on April 11 in a second-floor room at the Knights Inn in Rosemead, Calif. The Los Angeles County sheriff's office said the shooting occurred during a large party.

In Galena, Ill., a guest found the front-desk clerk unconscious after a man walked through the front door of the DeSoto House Hotel on April 4, assaulted the clerk with a knife and stole $500. In March, the clerk was robbed by another man with a gun who also stole $500.

Violent crimes such as armed robbery occur more frequently at small hotel properties near highways or in high-crime neighborhoods, says Norman Bates, a security consultant and former security director at three Boston hotels.

'Responsible for myself'

McInerney of the hotel association says hotels understand the importance of guest safety and — despite a severe downturn in travel — have made few cuts in security staffs.

Many hotels have security staff that periodically patrol hallways on guest-room floors, and many limit access to some floors with rooms for high-paying and frequent guests. But, at most hotels, non-guests have easy access to guest-room floors.

"Allowing non-guests on guest floors provides opportunities to commit crimes," Brown says. "It is perhaps the best practice to require guests to chaperone non-guests."

Security experts such as Farina say a hotel's security precautions can easily be compromised, and hotels need to take other measures. For instance, he says, using security staff to perform other hotel duties during tough economic times is asking for trouble.

"Security staff may be asked to deliver a meal to a room or taken off security for 20 minutes to help with housekeeping," says Farina. "Twenty minutes is a lot of time for something to happen."

He also says that hotels should require housekeepers and other employees to politely confront non-guests in hallways and ask whether they need help finding their room. "The last thing a criminal wants is for an employee to remember them," he says.

Tubbs, the former hotel manager who was assaulted in an Illinois hotel, says other steps need to be taken.

Check-in, shuttle-bus and restaurant employees need better security training, she says.

Keep room number private

Staff at front desks shouldn't announce a guest's room number at check-in, Tubbs says, because it could be valuable information for a criminal targeting a traveler. Nor, she says, should drivers or restaurant staffs call out guests' room numbers.

"One of my pet peeves is hotel breakfast staff asking for my room number," she says. "Why should everyone in the general vicinity hear my room number?"

Despite her concerns, Tubbs says, she feels safe at the hotels she chooses.

"Since my encounter in 1999, I have rejected hotel rooms because they were too isolated or across from stairwells, or because the clerk announced my room number aloud," she says. "I take responsibility for making myself safe."

Have you been the victim of hotel crime? What sort of precautions do you take to protect yourself and your possessions?

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