Sept. 16, 2010 -- Think twice before you take that bar of soap from your next hotel room.
A woman now faces up to three months in jail just for taking two towels from a hotel room.
A court in Nigeria has convicted Bilikisu Dowodu of stealing the towels from the Transcorp Hilton Abuja Hotel, in the country's capital city. She now has to either pay a $20 fine or spend three months in jail.
While this is probably an extreme case of punishment, guests stealing items from rooms costs hotels millions of dollars each year. And we're not just talking about some shampoo and towels.
Guests have walked out of hotels with hair dryers, corkscrews, phones, ironing boards, radios, flowers, bibles, luggage stands, coffee mugs and just about anything else that isn't bolted down.
To stop theft, hotels have secured lamps, TVs and hangers. Artwork has been bolted to the walls and mini-bars have gone high-tech. But at a certain point, hotels have to balance offering nice amenities and making their rooms feel like prison cells.
Upscale chains now don't offer robes, umbrellas and even sometimes linens in their rooms, but sell them instead in the gift shop and have added price tags to the in-room items. The moves have dramatically cut theft.
John Bowen, dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, said one reason that people might feel comfortable stealing from a hotel is because the consequences are so small.
Nigeria might have tough penalties for stealing hotel towels, but in the U.S. Bowen said criminal charges are rarely pursued.
"The common thing is just to let you know that your credit card is being billed for that item you took with you," Bowen said.
Sometimes guests go for large-ticket items.
"We had a guest that was trying to take a large mirror out of the room," Bowen said about the on-campus hotel. "People get fairly bold in what they try to take out"
The 86-room property loses a few hundred dollars each month due to theft, Bowen estimated.
Hotel Guests Steal More than Shampoo
Other guests take items to remember their trip. Some people collect snow globes, key chains and T-shirts while others apparently look for hotel room items with resort logos.
"I've heard stories of people stealing things from a hotel for sentimental value," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "For example, friends of mine wanted the slippers from the hotel where they spent their honeymoon. They were told the slippers were available for purchase in the gift shop, then they were sold out. Rather than leave without the slippers, they took the ones from the room, reasoning the hotel wasn't going to reuse them anyway."
Hotels used to but their logos inside ashtrays and those became big collectables. Bowen said to help combat theft, the hotels removed the logos. These days, many hotels have gone non-smoking.
Travelocity surveyed hotel guests in the U.S. and Canada and found that 85 percent of them had taken toiletries from a hotel room. About 5 percent reported also taking a bathrobe or slippers, 2 percent took dishes or silverware. Somebody even admitted to stealing a bible.
"People most likely see toiletries as part of their room rate and don't really consider it theft the same way as if they stole, say, a television or DVD player," Brown said.
It's possible that people who believe they've paid too much for their room or that they received less-than-stellar service may be more inclined to take something than someone who is totally satisfied with their hotel experience, she hypothesized.
"A better course of action though is to air your grievances to the hotel manager to see if they can make it up to you somehow," Brown said. "Most hotels want to make you a repeat guest, so they're likely to work with you."
One big mystery: why guests steal TV remotes that are typically worthless outside the hotel's system. Bowen, the hospital school dean, suggested people might mistakenly think the remotes will work at home.
So is it alright to take your shampoo or sewing kit? Bowen said no hotel is going to stop you for taking that half-used bottle or even that extra one left in your room. But there is a cost and it gets built into your room rate.
"It does cost the hotel money over the long term," Bowen said. "People do build up the inventory with the intention of taking it."
Each bottle of shampoo or bar of soap costs hotels about 20 cents. When you add in pens, paper and pads, the tab is about $3 per room, Bowen estimated. While hotels generally recoup costs of bigger-ticket items simply by charging a guest's credit card, it still costs them money to have housekeeping keep a detailed inventory of a room's items.
Even the warnings not to steal aren't immune from theft.
Humor columnist Dave Barry once told the story about a Hyatt bathroom sign that read: "Our towels are 100 percent cotton. Should you wish to purchase a set, they are available in the gift store. Should you prefer the set in your bathroom, a $75 charge will automatically be added to your bill."
Barry didn't take the towels. He stole the sign, took it home and kept it in his guest bathroom.