And of course, it feels that way: compared to the city on the other side of the door, it is cool (or warm, if it’s winter), quiet, and peaceful. All the hustle and bustle of the street disappears, the crowds, the traffic, honking, sirens, beggars, hawkers, weather. The lobby may have flowers, scent, soothing music, something to drink, smiles. Compared to the outdoors, the lobby is the very nirvana the hotel advertises.
Hotel lobby baggage theft
Bob and I went to Rome recently for a film shoot with a German production company. We arrived two days before the film crew, but we happened to be in the lobby when they arrived. All ten of them entered with their luggage and crowded around the reception desk. Several tossed their backpacks into a corner while they checked in and introduced themselves to Bob and me. Eyeing those unguarded bags, I decided not to be a worrywart, a killjoy, and a hysteric. I thought I’d do my best to keep my eye on the bags.
The lobby was mildly chaotic with check-ins, greetings, and the driver back and forth with luggage. Next thing I knew, one of the crew lunged toward the luggage and grabbed the hand of a crouching thief.
It happened so fast it almost didn’t happen. The thief ran out the door empty-handed. Bob and I took off after him.
Bob ran faster and further than I did, and eventually caught a man who claimed to be a friend of the thief’s. We had not gotten a good look at the thief in the lobby—not that this guy knew that. Strangely, he didn’t object to my openly filming him. He also gave us his mobile phone number. Marco, a member of the crew who’d caught up with us, called the number right away to see if the number was correct. The friend-of-the-thief’s phone rang. None of us could identify the thief, so after talking for a while, we said goodbye.
Meanwhile, a police car had parked in front of our hotel. In the back seat was a newly-arrested pickpocket and outside of the car a victim was identifying the pickpocket to a policeman. That incident was totally unrelated to our attempted baggage theft. One of our crew used the opportunity to tell the officer about our almost-theft. We didn’t speak with the handcuffed pickpocket or the victim, but we wished we could have since we’d come to Rome to shoot a special on pickpocketing. What a coincidence!
The moral of the story is that baggage can’t be safely ignored in a hotel lobby. Not even through two glass doors, not even with a crowd of pals around, not with the receptionist facing the door, not even for a minute. But this story gets weirder. Much weirder!
At midnight, a thief calls
At midnight, Marco’s phone rings. We’d had a good day of filming, a good dinner together, and we’re all standing in Piazza Barberini enjoying the night air and the energy from our successful shoot.
Marco doesn’t recognize the Italian phone number calling him but he answers his phone. His face darkens.
“I saw you and I know where you’re staying,” a man threatens in English. “I’m the guy who was in the back of the police car. In front of your hotel.”
What? None of us had ever spoken with that perp. We hadn’t given any of our phone numbers to anyone.
The thief continues: he knows who we are. We better not put any footage on Youtube. And he hangs up.
Marco is shaken. The rest of us are confused. Who was the man on the phone? He was certainly not the one who tried (and failed) to steal a crew member’s backpack in our hotel lobby. Neither was he the friend-of-the-thief. This guy was handcuffed in the back of a squad car during all that action.
Bob and I come up with a theory. A small band of marauding thieves had been prowling the area. As one attempted hotel lobby baggage theft, another pickpocketed a man on the street. A multidisciplinary criminal outfit on a self-enrichment offensive. Unspecialized opportunists on a hit-and-miss venture.
Bob phones the mystery thief. “Bob Arno, I know you,” the pickpocket says. “I’ve watched your film. I’m sitting here in a cafe with about 30 other pickpockets and we’ve all seen it.” No longer threatening; he’s positively jovial. He had heard the police officers talk about our tv shoot while he was being booked at the police station. He was let go (of course), and later reunited with his friends. The one whose phone Marco had called, and the one who had tried to steal a backpack.
Knowing Bob Arno from the National Geographic film Pickpocket King, the three paranoid thieves thought Bob had filmed the attempted baggage theft and did not want the footage put online.
Bob phoned the pickpocket once more:
The next day I call him, via Skype. We bond, and have a good conversation. And he spills some secrets: the size of their network, how they work and where, and how long they stay in one country. About thirty of them, all Moroccans, make up the gang. He is friendly and quite educated. This surprises me. This is nearly always how we start out: digging and drilling down for information. Gentle, easy question at first, slowly building some sort of rapport. Eventually we can map their entire operation, including girlfriends, snitches, fences, and on and on. Some of these efforts can take years, and they are not all successful.
All this resulting from a hotel lobby baggage theft that didn’t even happen. Read about Marianne, an actual victim of hotel lobby baggage theft.
The undetectable impostor infiltrating hotel lobbies
Think you’d notice a bag thief prowling around your hotel lobby? You haven’t met “Pedro,” a very different practitioner of hotel lobby baggage theft. Pedro, a multi-talented thief working in Paris, told us:
If you want to make money, you have to go to the big hotels, the five-stars. You use psychology, so you’re not suspected. You must be well-dressed. If you look like a good man, the person working the doors doesn’t keep you out. You are a good man! You have to feel like a good man to avoid security.
Look and feel like a good man. By that Pedro means appearing respectable, unimpeachable. Unlike our bag-thief-wannabe in Rome, Pedro doesn’t snatch and dash. He stands right beside you—orders coffee beside you in the lobby bar. He’s a good actor—you don’t suspect him. You don’t raise your antennas because he’s near. In fact, your guard is down. You’re in the hotel lobby!