Hotel security in the hands of housekeeping staff

Hotel Security: Can you identify this thief?
Can you identify this thief?

Loot ‘n scoot: Through my police friends, I learned of another devious M.O. resulting in theft from hotel rooms. The thief simply poses as a guest. Wearing pool attire, she enters a hotel room that has a housekeeping cart at the door, as if she’s just returning to her own room from the pool. She tells the maid that she forgot her key, starts looking for it, and dismisses the maid. I suppose her beach bag is big enough for all the goodies she grabs, and she scoots out in her swimsuit looking as innocent as can be.

Hotel security: Maid left hotel room open and empty.
Maid left hotel room open and empty.

In another version, a female thief gets a nearby housekeeper to open a hotel room door because she’s carrying a heavy load. She may or may not have spotters on the lookout for guests returning to that floor.

Hotel security

In both cases, the security of our belongings is in the hands of the maids. How well are they trained? How much discretion do they have? When should they break the rules in order to be nice? When should they bend the rules in anticipation of a nice gratuity? What about temporary workers during the hotel’s high season—do they receive as thorough training? How many of us have approached our room only to find that we forgot our key, or the key doesn’t work, and a nice service staff member volunteers to let us in?

Hotel policy is one thing; compliance is another. How do you react when you find that your key doesn’t work (for the third time), the front desk is far away (giant hotel), your feet hurt and your arms are full and you’re dead tired, and the maid with a master key says “I’m sorry. It’s for your own security.”?

The burglars described in the recent police bulletins were females of average height and weight, 50ish and blonde. Nicely generic. The maid may believe she’s seen the impostor; and perhaps she has. Should she risk offending the “guest”?

Perhaps the maid should be required to ask the name of the guest and match it to a list. Yeah, a list on a clipboard left on the cart, that the thief’s accomplice copped a glance at. Perhaps the maid should be required to snap a photo of the guest “for your security.”

As a very frequent hotel guest, I have many times returned to my room to find the door left open by housekeeping staff “just for a minute” while they run to do something else. This always infuriates me, as there’s usually a laptop or two left out, as in the photo here, not to mention other valuables. But this is simply housekeeping error, and with proper training, can be corrected. The impostors described above are skilled social engineers, harder to protect against.

Bruce Schneier is currently blogging from SHB09, the Second Interdisciplinary Workshop on Security and Human Behavior, at MIT. I doubt if discussions covered “tricking hotel maids,” but what a complicated and interesting subject. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall there. Instead, I can read articles by the presenters.
© Copyright 2008-2009 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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  • Thanks for your thoughts, Philip. So what’s the answer? How does a hotel find that balance of security and hospitality? More important, how does it train staff to call the shots?

  • The challenge for hotels is the balancing of security with customer service and convenience. Security in itself is black & white, hospitality on the other hand is an “open” environment and full of color. Only by blending the two methodologies together, can the hotel organization be successful in providing this heightened level of service to its customers.

    Of course the trick is, this must all be set up in a fashion that makes the customers feel safe and secure at the same time not being so over the top that it looks like a military installation.

    Philip Farina, CPP – Travel & Hotel Security Expert
    Farina and Associates, Ltd.

  • Yeah, Bambi, I think it takes a lot of pressure to get them to do anything. They go through the motions for free because it’s good PR; they actually try to do something only when pressed to the wall. :/

    This was an *excellent* post. Really really truly excellent. You guys are so good at what you do!

  • I am sure hotel security directors have already done whatever they can to prevent such criminal activities. Proper security procedures, trainings for non-security staffs and etc. Another angle we can look at this issue: Guest security awareness. It’s just a personal habit/practices whenvere I stay in a hotel, I will always secure my valuables before I leave the room.
    Biometrics technology seems to be an easy fix but as someone mentioned already, it involves privacy issues.

  • considering how maids wash the glasses in most top hotels, I wouldn’t count on them to improve security. Often there is also a language difficulty to complicate requests for privacy. So do we count on good luck?

  • Biometrics used on a short term, like a hotel stay, seems like a good idea. But it might take a major lawsuit against a hotel chain to get them to spend the bucks, don’t cha think?

  • Institute a hand print system. When you pay for your room (or get your CC cleared) they put your hand on a sensor that makes digital data of your hand print. A similar device is found on your door. The technology analyses each fingerprint, the thumbprint, and other metadata. Guests coming back to their rooms whilsts housekeeping are inside are required to authenticate – otherwise housekeeping alert security. Proxies can be used – others in the presence of the CC holder at the front desk when checking in. The system on the room door accepts the submitted hand print, quickly sorts through the registered data for that room, then allows or disallows entry. Piece of cake.

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