You go on a vacation to relax, have some fun, and enjoy time away from the stresses of everyday life. That can all be ruined, though, if you fall victim to a scam.
And though most people don’t assume their hotel is out to scam them in any way (other than the prices in the vending machines), unfortunately some shady hotels are out there to take your cash—or, more often, they’re infiltrated by criminals in search of easy money.
Someone was able to break into a hotel phone system…
Hotel crime stats are hard to come by, since the police don’t keep statistics of hotel thefts vs. thefts in the community, and outlets like USA Today couldn’t get any crime data from hotels directly. But they did report on a 2009 study which found that 756 crimes against hotel guests were committed during a two-year span in Miami Beach. More than half were thefts, and 38 percent of the crimes were committed in the guest’s room.
That’s not to say that theft is inevitable any time you travel. But it does mean that, instead of immediately going into “relax” mode, you need to be a little on guard when you get to your hotel.
Here, we’ll list some scams that have hit hotels and tell you how to avoid them. Then, just in case you ever do get into trouble, we’ll tell you what to do if you’re a victim of a crime when you’re far from home.
1. Fake Pizza
Nothing bad could come from pizza, right? Sadly, pizza was the focus of at least one hotel scam. This scam happened a lot around Disney World hotels in Orlando, but it could happen anywhere.
So, you get a flyer for a pizza place under your hotel door. Great. You’re hungry, so you call and order a pizza. You give your room number, your credit card number, but nothing ever comes. Maybe the delivery guy got lost.
Turns out, the pizza place doesn’t exist—it’s just a front to get your credit card number. Since you gave your number freely over the phone, they can use it immediately to buy whatever they want. By the time you realize that your pepperoni pie isn’t coming, they could have charged your account thousands of dollars.
Thankfully, this is easy to avoid in a number of ways. First, always double check any fliers that are left on your hotel door. Search for the establishment on Google Maps to make sure the place actually exists.
If you do give out your credit card number and then realize your mistake, call your credit card company right away. Report the scam and check all recent charges. Ideally, you’ll get a refund for any fraudulent expenses.
The credit card company will have to cancel the card, which leads us to another traveling tip: Travel with at least two types of payment. Either have a backup credit card, make sure your debit card can handle your traveling expenses, or go old school with straight up cash or traveler’s checks. You may never have to use your backup money, but it’s good to have it just in case.
2. “Can we confirm your credit card number?”
Pizza’s not the only easy way for criminals to get your credit card number.
You might be sitting in your hotel room when you get a call from the front desk.
“We had a glitch in our computer system,” they say, “and your credit card information has been lost.” They’ll ask you to re-read your number and then claim the problem is solved.
Unfortunately, this person on the phone doesn’t work for the hotel, and you’ve now given your card number to a con artist.
Herb Weisbaum, a MSNBC contributor, reported on two such scams—one at a Dallas Hilton and the other at a Seattle Hilton. In the first instance, at least one of the 20 people called gave out their information.
Versions of this scam float around online: sometimes, the caller purportedly claims the system was down and that they need to re-enter the guest’s credit card data; other times, they purportedly offer guests free rooms and other perks in exchange for their info.
According to Snopes, most major hotels have strict regulations about who can access individual rooms’ phone lines—usually, someone can only call a room if they know at least the name of the person staying in the room. In the Seattle case, however, “someone was able to break into a hotel phone system and contact guests directly without going through the front desk,” Andy Olson of the Washington Lodging Association told Weisbaum.
So while this may not be a scam you encounter often, it does happen. If you’re staying at a small motel (or the con artist really did his homework), the scam still has a chance of working.
In general, never give out your credit card number over the phone unless you’ve dialed—or been called by—a trusted number. If someone calls and asks for your number, hang up the phone, call the front desk yourself, and see if there really is a problem. If it’s true, go down to the front desk to fix it in person.
Since this and the pizza scam both involve easy retrieval of your credit card info, it’s best to always be careful when giving out your payment information. If you never give it out over the phone, your risk of fraudulent charges decreases dramatically.
3. Room Damage
“Room damage” is apparently very common in Thailand.
You leave the hotel exactly as you found it, and later get an out-of-the-blue bill for “room damage.” Since you’ve likely given the hotel your credit card, they can instantly charge you for whatever “damage” you left behind, according to John Brinkley in his book Scams and Other Tricky Things.
Thankfully, your cellphone can save you from this scam. Take pictures of the room when you get there and right before you leave. When the hotel gets abject proof that no damage was done, they will usually reverse the charges.
Jack Plaxe of Security Consulting Alliance always recommends thoroughly checking your room upon arrival.
“An inspection should look at doors and windows to ensure that all close properly and that all locks are in working order,” he says. “In addition, the hotel safe should be checked to ensure that it locks and unlocks properly.”
If anything seems amiss, report it to the hotel immediately. By giving the room a once over, you’ll never get caught in a suite with malfunctioning locks.
Also, whether you’re in Thailand—or anywhere else—it’s always best to carefully look over your hotel bill before you leave. Hotels make mistakes from time to time, and you’ll occasionally wind up with minibar charges for stuff you never used. These charges are easily contested and hotels will typically remove them from your bill with almost no argument. But if you find the fees a month later when you get your credit card statement, those minibar fees will be a lot harder to reverse.
4. The Extended Vacation—While You’re Sitting at Home
Sometimes the con happens long after the vacation has ended. A homeless man in Florida managed to slip into hotels like the Ritz Carlton and rack up thousands of dollars on other people’s credit cards, according to Daily News. He’d slip into guests room as they were leaving, then call the front desk to extend the stays for up to 10 days. The formerly homeless man would order room service and live the high life—all on the previous traveler’s credit card.
Always check your credit and debit cards accounts after traveling. To ensure that no false charges pop up, give them a look once a day. Travel of any kind makes you more susceptible to scams, and if you catch a credit card scheme early, it’s much easier for the bank or credit card company to reverse the charges. Plus, you’ll help them catch the guy who tried to vacation on your dime.
5. Slow Count
This can happen at hotels, or any place that takes cash. It’s an old scam where the person behind the desk counts slowly or at an odd rhythm. Frustrated and in a rush, the customer will take the money and go without realizing they were short changed, wrote Rick Steves, host of the PBS travel show Rick Steves’ Europe.
Similarly, if the currency is unfamiliar to you (as it tends to be in overseas travel), it’s easy for you to get the wrong change without realizing. Some tellers will purposely short change you, knowing the mistake will go unnoticed.
This happens by accident all the time, of course, and in America, too. But when you’re dealing with foreign money, you’re less likely to notice that you got a twopence instead of a two-pound coin.
Also, can all the countries get together and make coins that are easier to use? I’m looking at you nickel—bigger than a dime but worth less? It makes no sense!
6. Old-Fashioned Thievery
According to Plaxe, “hotels that cater to foreign travelers are often targeted by criminals looking for a quick score.” This puts customers into a bit of a catch 22: smaller hotels can be less secure, but bigger hotels attract more criminals.
In larger, touristy hotels, be careful in common areas, since that’s where most thieves strike. Most often, criminals pick up unattended baggage, laptops, or other valuables and then just walk out the door.
Easy enough fix: don’t leave bags unattended! Take them with you, or have a friend or family member watch your stuff. In the minute it takes you to run to the drinking fountain, all your stuff could be gone, so it’s worth the hassle of keeping an eye on your bags.
Yet sometimes, things can be stolen right from your person. Pickpocketing and purse theft are fairly common and hard to detect, especially in crowded areas—that’s the hotel lobby, sure, but also the streets outside.
To avoid pickpockets, make sure your purse is secured across your body, and keep your wallet in your front pockets. Though criminals can still try to pickpocket you, this makes it a lot harder.
Most importantly—pay attention. If someone bumps into you, immediately check your wallet. If someone is desperately trying to distract you, keep your attention on your valuables. These are both techniques pickpockets have used since Oliver Twist times, and if you aren’t paying attention, they still work. Luckily, with a little vigilance, you can avoid this kind of theft completely.
7. Room Inspectors
This scam seems so obvious, yet it’s so easy to fall for. Steves reported on a common scam where thieves knock on your hotel room door and say they’re “room inspectors.” Often, they come in pairs and one man will stay and talk with you at the door. Then, the other guy goes into your room and steals your valuables.
This simple scheme is ingenious: it’s not natural to automatically think someone isn’t who they claim to be, and it may even feel rude to deny their entry.
So, if anyone wants to come into your room, other than housekeeping or room service that you’ve explicitly ordered, don’t let them. While they wait in the hall, call the front desk to verify that the “inspectors” are who they say they are. If the hotel doesn’t employ inspectors, call the police. Then, they can do a “room inspection” of their new jail cell.
Other General Tips
Always know the number for the police.
Though “what’s the number for 911” sounds like a silly question, it’s perfectly valid overseas—although an “emergency number” might be smarter to ask for. Learn the emergency numbers of any country you’re visiting, and try to have the number of the police station as well.
Also, bookmark ChartsBin. It lists almost every emergency number you’d need for countries around the world.
Find the American Consulate.
If you’re the victim of any kind of crime overseas, contact the local police first. This may solve the problem in and of itself, but if you’re having trouble communicating, you can take the report to the American Consulate and get further help there. Says Plaxe: “The US State Department employees can help American citizens file police reports, suggest local medical providers who speak English, and issue a new US passport in the event one is lost or stolen.”
They’ll help you contact friends and family and even direct you to an English-speaking lawyer. So, it’s good to know where the American Consulate is, just in case of emergencies. Thankfully, the US Embassy lists all its locations on their website.
All these stories of cons and thefts aren’t meant to scare you away from traveling.
We just want you to travel informed and stay safe on your holiday. With a little vigilance and awareness, you can avoid almost any scam and enjoy your well-earned vacation time.