How safe are Hotel safes?
Your laptop, camera, money and other valuables are items that you may have to leave in the “safety” of the hotel when you travel. Are the safe deposit boxes in the guest rooms or those located in Reception sufficiently secure?
Writing from personal experience, my answer is, no! I have had money stolen twice from Reception safes of the kind where the hotel has one key and the guest is given the other.
When you complain, the standard answer is that you must be mistaken, as without the key in your possession it is not possible to open the safe with just the other. You not only lose your money, you lose your credibility!
In fact, it only takes a fraudulent receptionist, porter, or even a member of the management to have copies made of the, so called, unique guest keys, and open the safe when there is no one around. The scam often goes unnoticed as only part of the money is taken, in the hope that the guest will not notice it. Once, in the USA, I only became aware of the theft when I arrived at another hotel, in a different state, and counted the money. On the other occasion, in Europe, a €50 note went missing, which was less than 10% of what had been put in the safe.
Then, there are the safe deposit boxes inside the guest rooms. In the 1990s, in Russia, while checking-out, I noticed that part of a substantial amount of money that I had left in a simple metal box, with a very simple key, inside one of the cupboards in the room, was missing. Obviously, a member of the staff had made a copy of the key, an easy task as the keys were left in the lock while the rooms were vacant; and this was a 5-star hotel! As usual, the quantity of notes and value was such that an absent-minded person might not have noticed, until later. Even then, a doubt might remain about whether the money could have been spent and the circumstance forgotten.
Another time, in Central America, I felt pretty certain that a small amount of money (some $20) had vanished, this time, from an electronic room safe. How can that happen when there is a 4 digit secret code entered by the guest? Well, it only takes a little googling to find adverts of hotel safe manufacturers and to read that they provide a “Default password”, or a “Hotel master code and key”, or “2 x back up keys in case of lock out”, or some electronic gadget. Of course, for the sake of protection the means to these emergency procedures remain under the custody of the hotel management… Just imagine: you have a transfer to the airport at 4am; you can’t remember the code to open the safe and call reception in desperation. They wake up the manager and he promptly gets out of bed and arrives at your room in his pajamas with the magic means to reopen the safe.
Of course, the reality is different. Once in Cuba, I forgot the code to open the safe and asked the hotel for help. Someone from reception (not the manager) came up with a hand-held device connected to a cable that he plugged into the safe. Within seconds, it was open. Whether it is with an electronic device, or a master key, it is so easy to open the safe, that your valuables are not safe from dishonest hands. In fact, some of these safes, as mentioned above, are reopened with a simple numerical 4-digit password: if other easier methods were not available, a dishonest chambermaid, or mini-bar attendant, or anyone else with regular access to the room could, with more or less time, go through the ten thousand possible combinations and get hold of the code. Often, they don’t even need to do that, as some hotels fail to change the factory emergency default password: something like 0000 or 1234, which they find out in due time.
There have been reports of hotel staff cleaning the keypad before the arrival of guests and smearing a light film of oil over the keys, so that, later, they can see which four keys were pressed. That reduces the odds of getting the right code from 10000 to 256 and, as many people choose parts of a birthday, there is a likelihood that the first number may be 1 or 2 (2309, for 23rd September). If one of the keys for those initial numbers has signs of a fingerprint, the odds are further reduced, and it should not take too long to arrive at the right combination, by trial and error (54 possibilities, if my maths don’t fail me).
There are electronic safes that operate with a swipe card. As long as you don’t use the door key-card, which can be copied at reception (if it wasn’t already done, during check-in…) and use one of your own credit cards, it should offer better security, but remember that someone in the hotel can always open the safe, be it with a password, a key, or an electronic device.
So, what should you do with your valuables?
There are a number of portable safes on the market, and even a supplementary lock to attach to the room safe. The first are based on a strong cable that you coil around a fixed item, like a radiator pipe and join both ends with a padlock. The second also uses the 3-digit luggage padlock. Unfortunately, like many of you may have discovered, and I have done many times, to open such a padlock is a simple exercise. At worst, you can spend an hour going through the 1000 possibilities; with luck, you'll find the right one soon after you begin. Better still, you can follow the on-line instructions of at least one padlock manufacturer that explains, in detail, the easy steps needed to open these padlocks in a few seconds!
When I travel, I use a money belt for notes and passport, and a bum-bag (a target for thieves in busy markets, I know…) for items that I can afford to lose; and I put a small camera around my neck. Laptops are more difficult to deal with: depending on the hotel, the best answer is to leave them with reception or in the charge of the manager.
Better still, leave your valuables at home!