Uncovering the criminal element in hotels and motels

BANFF, AB—The transient nature of the lodging business can expose your hotel or motel to the risk of criminal activity—including organized crime—without your knowledge.

No one knows that better than Constable Wayne Birks of the Calgary Police Service, who spoke to a standing-room-only audience at the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association conference held in Banff late last month.

These criminal elements can include escorts, illicit drugs and identity theft. Constable Birks gave examples of each, offering practical advice to the hoteliers to keep them from becoming an easy target for criminals.

Credit card fraud

Credit card fraud is the number one problem among Calgary hoteliers, said Birks, passing around some fake credit cards as he spoke. At the top of the credit card crime pyramid is organized crime, who are also involved in trafficking of people, drugs and weapons.

At the bottom of the pyramid is the thief, who needs to unload their stolen goods to a fence—and the best place to meet is at a hotel.

Credit card data can be obtained in all sorts of ways—Internet scams, websites, card readers, card cloning, mail theft and trash theft.

“If I take your credit card, I have about 24 hours to use your card. If I steal mail when you’re on holiday, I have a longer time frame,” said Birks.

The most successful way is to clone information by switching bluetooth devices in machines, say at a Starbucks or Tim Hortons. Every time a card from that machine gets read, WiFi sends the co-ordinates. There’s no need for the thief to start using the card right away—the victim doesn’t even know it’s been compromised.

The thief goes to the fence who swaps the info for a hit of cocaine. Then they get a few people to use the credit cards to buy gift cards—turning stolen credit into real money.

When to take action
So, with all this criminal activity taking place, what alerts the hotel staff and when should they take action?

For example, a hotel front desk manager might sense that something is not quite right, because a name doesn’t match the credit card and there are four people crammed into one room. Trusting their instincts, they called the police, and when the police showed up they netted 45 charges, one

Mafia-type and three escorts, cheques, plastic and 15 or 16 different IDs. They made that phone call to ask for advice following a presentation by Constable Birks. Before that, they would not have contacted the police when they saw an anomaly in guest information.

Front line and housekeeping your eyes and ears
When Birks gives his presentations, he aims them at housekeepers and front-line employees, “the eyes and ears needed to operate safely.”

The housekeeping department often has the only employee who has been around for years, and they see things in rooms that would otherwise never come to the attention of other hotel staff.

Birks talked about a third-person authorization scam, where a person walked in with a reservation, charged everything to a card, and scammed $100,000 in two months. The person was interviewed but no charges were laid.

In another situation, there was a different address, different card number, but the same phone and e-mail address. The e-mail should have tipped them off, said Birks. It was “realman69@gmail.com”.

The hotel suspected the girl in the room was working as an escort, but they didn’t do that extra check, that extra door-knock, that look in the eye to a guest that was suspicious.

Do that little bit extra, Birks stressed. In this case, they could have simply checked the e-mail address on Google.

There was lots of traffic to the room, lots of men but no food to go with that traffic. The hotel wondered if they should deal with the girl for being an escort since the credit card seemed legitimate. Three weeks later, they got a chargeback of $22,000 but of course, the girl was long gone.

Fake drivers’ licences
There are many fake drivers’ licenses going around, but real drivers licenses are made of polymer plastic that pings when you drop it on a hard surface.

Look at the totality of the situation, advised Birks. If someone balks at the usual hotel check-in procedure requiring a piece of photo ID and a credit card, you should be suspicious, especially if there is a sketchy guy with five girls in tow. On the other hand, if the guests are an old farming couple, of course you could accept cash from them.

If your housekeeper sees an embosser that produces raised letter on plastic, there’s usually no logical reason for this to be in a hotel room. And if they see holograms as well, “it’s not RBC sitting in the hotel room making credit cards.”
With any suspected criminal activity, the hotelier has to make a judgment call as to whether to challenge the guest or call the police.
But as Birks noted, “the underworld know where it’s easy to go.”