The decision has been made to travel to a far-flung destination, dreams of exotic experiences and a host of stories to tell on your return home. Are you planning to head away on a solo expedition, with a partner or perhaps the whole family are heading off together to reconnect and spend some quality time?
Once the destination is decided, the next consideration is where to stay. With a range of options available from home stay experiences to backpacker accommodation, five-star hotel, or anything in between, there are many other things to consider. Do you prefer to be situated close to the action in a high-rise hotel, or is the preference leaning towards resort style accommodation in a more relaxed setting? No matter your choice of accommodation it’s important to do the research beforehand when deciding where to stay during the trip.
There is literally a plethora of hotels available around the world which can be accessed, reviewed and booked at the click of a button catering to all tastes and budgets. When making a booking it’s important to check the reviews and google the hotel to ensure you are not greeted with any surprises such as renovations, photoshopped images or non-existent facilities.
This article explores a range of measures and countermeasures to minimize the risk most of us are exposed to during a vacation to another part of the world, one we are not familiar with. For the most part when traveling tourists can become overwhelmed with the new environment, their minds and senses bombarded with new experiences coming at them from all angles.
Changes from our normal daily patterns including jet lag and tiredness coupled with a willingness to cram as many experiences as possible into our stay can leave any individual feeling like they are a ‘deer in the headlights’. As a consequence, our instincts and sensory acuity may be diverted into other areas with little or no focus in managing personal security and risk.
When staying in hotel rooms which, for the most part are small and compact by their very design, there are a number of specific points within the space where the security of ourselves and our possessions are open to compromise. We will explore each of these areas and look at ways to minimize exposure of becoming a victim or circumstance.
Hotels With A History (Not A Good One)
Before selecting and finally booking your hotel, spend some time researching the area in which you are intending to stay. Check the nationally provided travel warning and advisory website in your home country for information pertaining to risk in the destination country.
Check out the hotel including what security provisions are provided including such things as key card or manual key security on doors. Is CCTV installed in the hallways of each level of the hotel, or if the hotel reception area is open 24 hours? Many travel forums are also a great source of information when it comes to the track record of the hotel, including incidents of theft and break ins.
Most hotel rooms are raided or ransacked during the day, when the room is most likely to be vacant. Access is obtained by one of two methods, either entry is made at the hotel room door, or via the balcony sliding doors. The threat of entry can be minimized greatly by simply selecting a room above the 5th floor, although there are known burglars who have been assigned the moniker of ‘Spiderman’ for their ability to swiftly move from hotel room to hotel room via the balconies.
Burglars are an entrepreneurial bunch, as they continue to come up with new ways to access your hotel room. Using such simple items as a rubber band to disengage the security chain, a length of wire or even a credit card. Alarmingly, more and more reports of electronic access cards being hacked are coming to light making thievery on a grand scale in a small amount of time, a real option for a tech savvy thief.
Worst Case Scenario
What would be considered to be the worst-case scenario is an entry to your room while you were sleeping. In 2016, one couple staying at a hotel in North Little Rock, Arkansas reported the incident while staying at the Quality Inn and Suites Hotel. When CCTV footage was reviewed by security personnel and hotel management, it showed the hotel cameras had captured a man walking through the hallways pushing on hotel room doors before finally gaining access to their room.
In a very short period of time the man was seen to exit the room where he had stolen cash, credit cards, a mobile phone, tablet, jewelery, and frighteningly a handgun which was licensed to the couple with a permit to carry. Thankfully the couple remained oblivious to the event, as they slept through the experience.
Master Key Security
Master key systems are used in many commercial environments to manage the first layer of security protocols being entry and egress. Comprising a hierarchy of keys which are coupled with a designated number of cylinders allowing different groups or individual key holders to gain access, limited or otherwise to specific areas of designation throughout a building.
Sometimes the system is also referred to as a ‘restricted key system’. A master key can operate two or more locks that operate on two individual keys. Some of the benefits of master, or restricted key systems are said to include the use of security blanks, which can only be obtained or copied from the locksmith business which designed the system, coupled with written authorization from the hotels owner or nominee.
Locks are considered to be more secure than regular key systems as the restricted key-way system reduces the chance of accidental opening by the wrong key. No system is infallible the master key system being no exception, as the importance of maintaining accurate records of keys, who they were issued to and when, and when returned must be maintained to avoid the possibility of duplicate keys being made without authorization.
Issuing keys, especially high-level keys such as those required in a hotel environment, should not be taken lightly. If the integrity of the system has been compromised for example, if a key is misplaced, or lost, part or all of the system may need to be re-keyed to lock out the missing key. For this reason, it is important an accurate key register is maintained by the staff to identify who is in receipt of certain keys. Collecting keys after their assigned guest has checked out is essential to maintain security of the building.
Most hotel room keys provide little or no security when it comes to securing the hotel room door. It takes only seconds for a seasoned hotel raider to access your room. Older type physical master key systems are still in place in many hotels around the world. Whilst a master key system is designed to ensure keys cannot be duplicated by a locksmith, much like anything else, there are good and bad people in society, locksmiths being no exception.
Many master keys issued to staff throughout the hotel, from room service, housekeeping and the maintenance department. Keys can be easily lost or misplaced during the course of the day by any employee, who may fail to report the issue until the end of their shift. Always keep your hotel key safely out of sight by placing in your pocket or handbag, ensuring others are unable to see your room number displayed on the tag.
For the most part hotel staff are an honest, hardworking bunch. However, in some countries, staff work long hours with little financial reward. The temptation to supplement their income may become too much if they are experiencing financial difficulties in their personal life.
Electronic Key Security
Also known as key cards, these are used in conjunction with the key card lock. The card itself is about the size of a credit card, made of composite plastics and stores a unique physical or digital signature which is accepted by the door hardware (mechanism) and is required to disengage the lock. Many types of electronic security for doors using card systems are available including barcode, magnetic strip, Wiegand, RFID and smart cards. Onity locks are one of the most popular key card systems used by hotels around the world, have had their open source hardware hacked.
By inserting a device, which can be built for under $30, it’s simply a matter of plugging into the port on the underside of the door hardware, the device the maps the hardware, including the decryption key, which is then used to trigger the door to release. The only way to really mitigate this risk is to seal up the port on the underside of the door hardware. Many other electronic locking systems used around the world are also susceptible to hacking.
New technology is now a reality and spreading through a range of hotel chains including Aloft, W Hotels and Element, with Starwood rolling out the upgrade throughout its 150 sites. It’s a no brainer really, keyless entry via smartphone is so much more convenient and cost effective in the long run than using the current key card system. Keyless hotel room entry works by installing an app, then enrolling your smartphone.
Photo Credit: Starwood Hotels and Resorts
On the day of arrival at the hotel, an encrypted key is sent to guests via text message or push notification, together with a message advising the room number. On arrival, guests simply place their phone in the proximity of the hotel room door reader to provide entry. The technology used is Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Whist it’s a more convenient option, no doubt it will only be a matter of time before a black hat, cracks the algorithm.
Until such time this technology becomes more available, many guests will continue to experience the inconvenience of a demagnetized key card. Arriving at your hotel room door, swiping with the expectation of seeing the blinking green light, then nothing. Red, it remains. After several attempts, its back to the lift and down to the front desk in order to have the card reprogrammed.
Hotel Room Security
After entering the hotel room, place the 'do not disturb' sign on the door, for the duration of your stay. Only place the ‘please make up my room’ sign out for a short period of time. This can be confusing to any would-be thief, as he/she will be unsure if you are in or out of your room in the event they are undertaking surveillance of hotel corridors for opportunities.
When leaving the room, always turn on the TV or radio with the sound loud enough to be heard outside the door. If your hotel room utilizes the electronic room key to provide access to the services within the room, (where once you have opened the door, then place the room key in the plastic slot next to the door) use a business card or a piece of cardboard and place it in the slot, allowing the power to remain on in the room whilst you are away.
In the event a guest is planning to return to the room returning after dark, leave a light on also. Always ensure any windows are secure at night and when leaving or occupying the room. Test the windows by pulling back to confirm they are secured by the latches. If you are in a room with an adjoining door, ensure that it is secured using the deadbolt and lock. If not, contact reception to arrange to have it secured for the duration of your stay.
We don’t often consider the integrity of the door to our hotel room. For the most part modern hotels are fitted with solid doors which are fire rated. However, some remote or island destinations provide less than solid doors to their bungalow or bure style accommodation.
Always check the integrity of the door to your accommodation and make contingencies with whatever you have on hand to secure the door in the best manner possible. Products like the Doorstopper or Swege, portable travel door stop devices are great products for use when the room is occupied.
Most doors are fitted with a chain or sliding lock and while these items alone won’t provide full security they can contribute to the overall layers of security available. One no-cost alternative is to create an improvised burglar alarm. A couple of glass ashtrays, with a wine glass balanced on top of the two, then seated on the floor beside the door, is a great no cost option for travelers.
By selecting a higher floor, its deemed the security risk is lowered and in some sense it may well be however, in consideration of fire and subsequent evacuation, it places a guest at higher risk, literally. Of course there is always compromise, rooms on the lowest floor are always considered to be at greater risk of unauthorized access due to their easy proximity to exit the hotel. Higher floors can pose a greater risk in the event of fire. So, a compromise in this instance is a good idea, select any floor between the 5th and 10th to strike a sensible balance.
Singer Connie Francis, a popular chart-topping female vocalist during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s became a victim of a balcony breach of her hotel room when on November 8, 1974 an intruder forced the lock of her balcony door entered the room, raped and robbed her at knife point, leaving Ms. Francis tied to an overturned chair and covered with a mattress, nearly suffocating to death.
The harrowing two and a half hour ordeal stayed with the singer for the rest of her life. During the ordeal her attacker continued to count down from twenty saying he’d slash the singer's throat when he got to zero. She managed to talk the intruder down by telling him she was a professional singer who was scheduled to perform at the nearby Westbury Music Fair.
The singer said this conversation in all probability saved her life. The intruder was never caught and six months later, the singer sued Howard Johnson’s hotel chain for failing to provide adequate security in the amount of $5 million, with a final settlement out of court being made in the amount of $1,475,000.
Once settled into a hotel room, one of the first things you should do is check the peephole. If you can see through it from the inside, then this is a good thing however, if the view from the inside to the outside seems cloudy, then you need to take evasive action. Whilst it’s a rare occurrence, it does happen, in this instance a cloudy peephole could be an indication that a reverse camera has been fitted, allowing those on the outside to see in. If you are suspicious, alert the hotel immediately of the problem.
In 2014, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin a man was caught spying on ESPN reporter Erin Andres through the peephole of her hotel room. The footage taken by Michael David Barret from Illinois, went viral. He was subsequently charged and plead guilty to one count of staking. The disgraced former insurance executive detailed his method which included requesting a room next to the star. He was able to get her room number by using a house phone which showed which room she occupied.
We all remember the episode of Seinfeld when Cosmo Kramer installs a reverse peephole on his apartment door. It’s a classic. Peepholes are a window into your world, anyone who is stealthily on their feet can be peering into your hotel room whilst your oblivious to the peeping tom outside. This area of security should be given serious consideration by women traveling alone on vacation.
Creeps are to be found all over the world, and guests may be stalked without even knowing it. Women may be followed back to their hotel room and spied upon. Some hotels do provide peepholes on their hotel room doors, which have a privacy cover allowing the viewer from inside the room to slide it to one side in order to view who is outside, though many do not. A simple countermeasure requires the use of some tissue or toilet paper to 'plug' the peephole for the duration of a stay. It’s simple, costs nothing and provides an additional layer of security.
Travel today is a pretty high-tech experience yet most hotel rooms come complete with at least one telephone handset. These dinosaurs of technology past, once produced massive profits for hoteliers. However, unless you are ordering room service or dialing into another room where friends and family are staying, they are rarely used. Fixed landline phones though will still be around for a while yet, as the interests of guest safety and security demand them to remain in the space for a while yet.
Many hotels though are currently exploring smartphone applications, which when loaded onto their personal phone, guests can use the service to request room service, wake up calls and use the app to call for assistance. In the interim, as a single traveler, you may want to consider placing the room phone into ‘do not disturb mode’, for the duration of the stay, and only change the status to call room service, then placing it back into DND mode afterwards. In some instances, a burglar will make a number of attempts to dial your room, to check if its occupied. Have you ever received hang up calls to your room? It may seem a little over the top, however any countermeasure can be of great benefit with the advantage of hindsight.
In Room Safe Security
Never, ever assume your hotel in room safe is a secure method when it comes to storing valuable documents such as your passport, cash, jewelery, credit cards and compact electronic items. YouTube is full of examples of just how easy it is to open a hotel room safe.
Access can be easily gained by reprogramming the lock, by entering the rear of the safe, or use of magnets are a few of the many ways in which, only minutes are taken to rob you of your valuables.
In real terms guests should consider the in room safe to be a step above hiding your valuables under the mattress, or hidden in a draw. Some suggest reserving your most precious items for the hotel safe, which is kept in the managers office behind reception. For most hotels their policies clearly state valuables are stored at your own risk anywhere throughout the hotel, including the managers safe.
If you regularly travel with valuable items, consider the purchase of a lockable suitcase or bag. You can then secure the suitcase or bag using cable mesh or lanyard which is secured to a fixed item in the hotel room. At least if you are robbed, there is a good chance the offender will be caught on CCTV with your bag tucked under his arms. This may assist with his or her apprehension at a later date.
Most of us are aware of the Kim Kardashian-West incident which occurred at a hotel in Paris in 2016, in which her room was invaded by a team or organized thieves hell bent on robbing the star blind of her treasured jewels. In what must have seemed like a lifetime, the star was held against her will while the bandits systematically searched her hotel room.
Some readers may recall in 2009 when actor Jamie Foxx was attacked in his hotel room in Philadelphia by a stalker claiming to be affiliated with Beyoncé Knowles. Fortunately the actor was able to remove the invader from his room post haste. Local police were subsequently contacted with the invader duly arrested. Remember too, the Craigslist Killer, a good looking medical student roaming hotel corridors in search of escorts he’d booked previously online.
Assess your location and local crime statistics. Unfortunately, not all hotels are created equal in terms of the local and crime area statistics. A rural hotel setting will have a different crime profile to that of one situated in an urban landscape. The CAP Index, is a summary measure of crime risk as expressed in numerical, form where '1' represents a location of having a rating where the number 1, is considered to be of a very low risk, and 10, a very high risk of crime. It’s used by Fortune 500 companies in consideration of a hotel security and safety plan.
It certainly makes you wonder if the beefed-up security in hotels during visits by celebrities, or just standard security measures aren’t enough, then how can we protect ourselves.
Here are just a few tips to ensure your personal security risk is minimized when traveling.
Don’t overlook the obvious clues for thieves by wearing and proudly displaying your expensive jewelery, diamond earrings and watches.
Don’t leave items on display in your room, including laptops, phones, cameras, even receipts – which indicate your purchases and may contain personal information which can be used to steal your identity.
On leaving your room, ensure the door is securely locked. It’s a simple thing however, you’d be surprised how many people don’t actually check their hotel room door has been fully latched.
Don’t leave your room key laying around on top of the hotel bar or on a table by the hotel swimming pool. Keys are often labeled with the room number, leaving time for any opportunistic thief to head straight up to your room, knowing its most likely vacant.
Beware the parking lot, either under the hotel or external to the building. Where possible take advantage of a valet service or avoid the car altogether.
Single female travelers should also take note if they are intending to use the in-room breakfast order hanger, as a completed card contains your name and the number of persons occupying the room. Any would-be opportunistic raider can use this information against you by knocking on your door and using your name to gain entry to the room.
Before leaving home** take photos of all credit cards, passports, air tickets and other valuable documents and store them on your phone for offline viewing. Additionally, review the contents of your wallet or purse, and only take the items necessary for your trip.
It's worth considering the security of your hotel accommodation is the first line of defense for any traveler to ensure a worry-free vacation.