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Holes in Hotel Security

​LAST YEAR’S case of an ESPN reporter who was surreptitiously filmed by a stalker through hotel room peepholes was fraught with security implications for the hotel industry. In the case, Michael David Barrett called hotels at which he believed reporter Erin Andrews had booked a room; he requested the room adjacent to hers, and his request was granted in various instances. He then tampered with the peepholes on her room doors so that he could videotape through them. He most likely used a cell phone to do the taping. He has since pled guilty to interstate stalking and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The most alarming guest security lapse in this case wasn’t the peepholes or lack of security technology, says hotel security consultant Philip Farina, CPP, but rather the behavior of the hotel employees who freely gave Barrett the information he requested. Hotels should have policies against giving out private client information, which would reduce the likelihood that a stranger could reserve a room next to someone as Barrett did. Employees should be trained in the importance of complying with those policies, notes Farina.

A request for adjoining rooms is a red flag, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that something nefarious is going on, says Farina. “It should be something that goes off in that person who is taking that reservation who says, ‘Okay, we need to find out a little bit more of what’s going on here.’”

Farina says hotel policies should direct staff to contact the initial guest to confirm that he or she approves of the adjacent-room request. Marriott International has recently modified its guest check-in policies so that a guest must provide consent for any adjacent-room request from another individual, says Marriott spokesperson Jeff Flaherty. Flaherty says that Marriott has also updated room inspection procedures to enhance guest privacy. Marriott was particularly affected by this case because several of the tapings are believed to have occurred in a Nashville Marriott.

It’s not just the desk clerks who need training. Every hotel staffer must have security on his or her mind. For example, cleaning crews should be instructed to look out for anything or anyone that appears suspicious, and they should check peepholes daily to catch any that may have been tampered with. The American Hotel & Lodging Association’s president, Joseph McInerney, says that his organization included that recommendation in communications it sent out following the Andrews case. McInerney and Farina both say they have already seen a number of hotels review and revise their policies in light of the Andrews case.

Andrews released her own hotel security recommendations via her attorney, Marshall Grossman, following Barrett’s guilty plea. They include installing cameras on every floor, improving employee training, seeking guest consent before assigning adjacent rooms, understanding red flags, and improving peepholes.

Both Farina and McInerney point out that having cameras in every hallway essentially requires that there be someone watching all of those cameras. Otherwise, the video will only work as a forensic aid and not as a preventive tool. That said, McInerney notes that some of the larger hotels already have cameras in every hallway.

Farina also advises hotels to train staff members to follow the ten-five rule, which entails smiling at or making eye contact with someone 10 feet away, and reaching out a hand for a handshake or saying hello and talking to them at five feet. “People who are committing illegal acts, they don’t want to be recognized,” he explains. “They don’t want someone to pay attention to them for any length of time.” Farina adds that this not only deters criminals, it’s also good for customer service because it conveys to guests that hotel employees care.

Whatever hotels do to beef up security and to protect guest privacy, however, travelers have to realize that they bear primary responsibility for their own safety. Travelers should be aware that there are many products on the market these days, some of which were originally developed for law enforcement, that make it easy to use the peephole to see into a room. Guests may want to cover the peephole when they don’t need to see who’s at the door.

There are other ways for people to look into a room, such as sliding tiny cameras under the door crack or drilling small holes in the walls. The only defense is a heightened sense of awareness, say experts, which is why travelers must remain attentive to anything suspicious in their surroundings.