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Originally published Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Hotel crime: Don't be lulled into false sense of security

Business travelers may think of their hotel as a haven from the trials of being on the road, but that may not always be the case.

The New York Times

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Business travelers may think of their hotel as a haven from the trials of being on the road, but that may not always be the case.

Hotels dislike talking about it, but theft and other crimes do happen. Just how much is impossible to pinpoint because hotels do not disclose numbers, and government statistics do not record crimes by property type.

While hotels try to educate guests on protecting themselves — putting safety tips on the back of doors, in room brochures and sometimes on the plastic-room key cards — new surroundings often lull guests into a false sense of security.

That is what happened to Glenn Haussman during his stay in October at a luxury resort in Phoenix. On the final morning of his stay, he woke up to find his wallet missing. He soon realized that someone had climbed over the adjacent balconies and entered his second-floor room through the balcony door he had left open.

"I had no identification, no credit cards and no cash," said Haussman, an adjunct instructor at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. "And I was supposed to be catching a plane."

He said security at the hotel, which he did not want to name because he was likely to attend another conference there, looked into the theft and asked him to sign a paper that said he had left the balcony door open. In other words, he said, "It was my fault."

John Powers, an insurance-fraud investigator, was another victim of theft when he stayed at the Hilton Milwaukee River Hotel last year. Powers said he was preparing a presentation for a new client and decided to duck out for a quick dinner without locking up his belongings, including a new Apple laptop.

When he returned, he said, "There was no laptop and no luggage."

His complaint was brushed off initially, he said, because the electronic-room-key card showed that he was the only one to enter the room. Hotels program room cards to keep track of who enters a room, whether it is a housekeeper, maintenance worker or the guest.

Key-card checks have greatly reduced theft, but not in every situation. In Haussman's case, no key card was used because the thief entered through the balcony. Powers noticed gouge marks, indicating a forced entry.

Powers said his experience led to collaborating on a book called "Greenhorn Traveler: The Art of Travel for Those Who Rarely Do." And, he said, now he "almost never" leaves his laptop anywhere.

Robert Allegrini, a spokesman for Hilton Hotels, said the company did not comment on its security and loss-prevention procedures.

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Hotel safety has substantially improved in the past decade, said Thomas Davis, a security consultant for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry association. This is because hotels not only keep tabs on who enters a hotel room, but also more thoroughly check employee backgrounds, remind guests to take precautions and consistently train staff members.

Mark Sanna, vice president for global security at Hyatt Hotels, said his company's hotels and others were beginning to adopt one answer to the theft of laptops, their biggest theft problem.

"We are retrofitting many rooms with safes that have an electrical outlet," Sanna said. "And the safes are big enough that you can leave your laptop and cellphone inside charging instead of leaving it out on the desk."

But, he added: "We can't prevent everything. It's a shared responsibility, and simple things like using the room safe can prevent a lot of problems."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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