The Rise - And Prevention - Of Crime Against Hotel Guests

Crime has been associated with hotels since the days of small inns when travelers were accosted by the dreaded highway robbers. These days, the predominant crime against hotel guests has been theft from unoccupied guest rooms.

But now, disturbingly, the nature of the crimes is changing, police officials say. More and more guests are being physically threatened in or near their rooms, or worse, attacked, raped or killed.

In September, a couple vacationing on the Oregon seacoast was fatally stabbed in their ocean-front motel in Seaside.

Recently, Motel 6 reached a $10-million settlement with a woman guest who was attacked, robbed and raped three years ago at one of the chain's locations in Fort Worth, Texas. (Attempts to interview officials of Motel 6 were declined.)

While separate hotel crime statistics are not recorded by police departments, most investigators I interviewed report that violent crimes at hotels are increasing.

"We've had one hotel," says Sgt. Terry Branum of the Buena Park, Calif., police department, "where we've had to respond more than 425 times in the last three years for reasons ranging from drunkenness and prostitution to homicide."

It has been argued that as the price of a hotel room goes down, so does the hotel's concern for safety and security. It's a fact that more serious crime occurs at budget hotels than at major, expensive hotels.

"Economy properties have a high client and employee turnover

rate," says Phil Sunstrom, chairman of the lodging committee for the American Society for Industrial Security, an association of corporate security chiefs. "You get what you pay for. And at $29.99 you're not buying a lot of security."

In 1970, only 1 percent of business travelers were women. Today, 39 percent of business travelers are women. And crimes against women staying at hotels are increasing.

Not every hotel has lax security, and not every budget hotel is a crime scene waiting to happen.

In New York City, perhaps the tightest hotel security can be found at the exclusive Waldorf Towers. All entrances are heavily controlled and patrolled. If you're going to the Waldorf Towers, you must either be a guest or invited to visit. But the Waldorf Towers is an exception, at least when it comes to hotel security in large cities.

"When you're dealing with giant hotels of 1,000 rooms or more," says Raymond Bickson, general manager of the 180-room Mark Hotel in New York, "or hotels with large banqueting facilities, it's impossible to screen traffic. And even if you have a large security staff, and they're monitoring 10 screens connected to security cameras, if it's a large hotel, their response time may be very slow."

But no matter what the size of the hotel, Bickson says, "Every entrance to a hotel must be monitored."

At one new Manhattan hotel, due to open next year, guest security was part of the initial physical design and employee training program.

"Our staff will be trained to recognize certain criminal profiles," says Charles Slepian, security consultant for the Millenium Hotel. Everyone from the general manager to the bellmen and maids will be trained to look for, react to and log any general maintenance problems that affect security. And a special internal security program monitoring hotel employees will be implemented.

"You have to face facts, sometimes crimes are inside jobs," says Slepian.

The responsibility for good security also rests with hotel guests. "You must not forget you are in a strange place. A hotel can only supply so much. You have to be careful and alert. You need to take a more active role in your own security," says Slepian.

Some hotels provide a false sense of security by providing in-room safes. But remember that using an in-room safe doesn't protect you in the event of loss. And an armed intruder could easily force you to open it. For better protection, use the safe deposit boxes provided by the hotel.

Another problem with hotel crime has to do with the logistics of pursuing a case.

"Hotel criminals know the odds are often in their favor even if they are caught," says Ray McCray Jr., director of security for the Sheraton Grande Hotel in Los Angeles. "They are counting on the chances that you are from out of town and either won't sign a complaint, or, even if you do, that you won't return to testify against them. Then, the cases are dropped."

Some of the budget hotels are also getting their act together. All Sleep Inns now require 180-degree viewers in each guest-room door, 1-inch deadbolts, solid core doors and a tamper-proof magnetic keyless room entry system.

In the meantime, what steps can you take to protect yourself?

-- When making a reservation, ask about the hotel's security procedures. What kinds of locks are on the doors? Is it a key system or an electronic key card system (a safer alternative)? Try not to stay on a first floor, but if you must, ask if the room has a patio door (a definite no-no).

-- Are there security guards around the clock? A caution: Some hotels may say they have a security person but in reality it's the maintenance man.

-- Is the name of the hotel on the key? The room number? Most major hotels no longer imprint this information on keys. Be extra-vigilant with keeping track of your keys and be aware of your surroundings. Make yourself known to hotel employees. Acquaint yourself with the hotel layout and use the most direct route to your room.

-- Ask to be escorted to your room."That's one of the biggest problems," says Michael Slosser, resident manager of the Beverly Hilton hotel. "It's not just the security of your hotel room, but the security of getting to your room. People just don't look and they don't listen. On the way to my room, I always check for the nearest exit, for the location of the elevator."

-- If you order room service, before you open the door, check to see whether the person is wearing the hotel's uniform. Never, ever open your door to a stranger - call the front desk immediately to report any suspicious activity.

"For hoteliers, the No. 1 concern is guest safety," says John Jiminez, director of security for the Swisshotel in Chicago.

"If our guests don't feel safe they aren't coming back and if their friends have a bad experience they're going to tell them about it. Without guests we don't have a hotel."

Copyright 1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Peter S. Greenberg's syndicated column appears occasionally in the Travel section.