Peter Greenberg knows all about frequent-flyer hotel thieves – and we’re not talking just towels and toiletries.
The investigative journalist, better known to front desk managers as the Travel Detective, has researched and documented their sins for years. The one that gets everyone’s attention has become part of Los Angeles hotel lore. “A guest at the Beverly Wilshire stole a marble fireplace,” says Greenberg. “He cut it out of the wall with a chisel. A bellboy even helped load the pieces in a truck.”
The items swiped from $800-a-night rooms would put the average shoplifter to shame. They include: large ceramic bowls, silver platters, throw pillows, wireless speakers, small oil paintings, iPads. “There’s a sense of entitlement,” explains Greenberg. “The guest thinks: ‘I overpaid for this room, and what’s in it is mine.’ Anything that can be squeezed into a suitcase seems to be fair game.”
Some things that don’t fit in the overhead bin are up for grabs, too. That’s the takeaway from the latest Theft in Hotels survey published last year by Wellness Heaven, a German website that reviews luxury hotels and spas. The data, collected from 1,157 four- and five-star hotels, helps explain why rack rates keep rising. The first sentence of the report jumps off the page like the price of beluga on a room service menu: “Stealing soaps or pens seems harmless for many hotel guests, however, some are so bold that they carry TVs, pianos, mattresses or even [taxidermied] animals out of the hotel.”
The other shocker from this biennial survey is that the people who stay in the best places are the biggest thieves. Four-star hotel guests tend to pilfer common household staples like pens, towels, hangers and cutlery. It’s at the posh five-star places, though, where the good stuff goes missing.
A television set is nine times more likely to be stolen from a five-star than a four-star hotel. The same goes for art heists, which happen five times more often in the very best establishments. Duvets and pillows are another five-star obsession. There’s a fourfold increase in the theft of those coveted goose down accessories. The scam: bring some old bedding from home, and switch it out just before checkout.
Here’s more bad news from Wellness Heaven survey: luxury hotel larceny is rising precipitously. Mattress theft is up 35% compared to the 2017 survey. The same goes for hair dryers (up 20%), phones (up 26%), coffee machines (up 21%), lamps (up 19%) and TVs (up 11%).
Making off with a Nespresso machine or a sleek desk lamp may seem beyond the pale, but that’s trivial compared to the “spectacular outliers” highlighted in the survey. Consider the Berlin hotel, where a variety of bath fixtures – from a rainfall shower head to an entire sink – were plundered. Then there’s the spa hotel outside Salzburg where the benches from a room’s “private sauna” vanished overnight. Not everything reported stolen made it into the survey. That includes unusual items like a Tesla power charger, a four-meter-wide film projection screen and a swimsuit dryer.
How is it even possible to pull a job like that off? Carting away a king-size mattress or a Steinway grand piano might require a costume change and professional moving equipment. One successful ruse involves a visiting “artist” who checks into hotels with a shipping crate that supposedly contains an unfinished canvas for a local gallery show. The crate, of course, is empty. But not for long. As the thief strolls out the door, with the bulky crate in tow, nothing seems amiss. It isn’t until housekeeping notices a valuable flat screen is missing that security realizes they’ve been had. This “artist” works the five-star circuit in South America, and has yet to be busted.
But there are targets worldwide. Boutique hotels in Europe are particularly vulnerable – skeleton staff, minimal security and limited desk hours means low risk and high reward. “Most small European hotels do not operate their reception desks 24/7; they usually close in the late evening,” says Dr Tassilo Keilmann, the CEO of the Wellness Heaven Hotel Guide. “They even give you a key to the main door if you go out for the evening, and plan to return late.” No need to be concerned about surveillance cameras or Ring video doorbells. Keilmann claims digital security is spotty at best: “Many hoteliers refrain from installing cameras due to privacy concerns. In Germany, for instance, it is forbidden to place cameras in public spaces, like the driveway in front of a hotel entrance.”
Even slightly larger European hotels are vulnerable to the light-fingered guest. The desk manager at an 80-room pleasure dome in the Italian Alps says theft is a constant and ever-increasing threat to their bottom line. One of the most popular items stolen from this five-star hotel are the non-complimentary “wellness bags”, which are stuffed with 350 euros worth of holistics products, including a “cozy” bathrobe and blanket. Although many of these swag bags disappear every year, no thief has ever been prosecuted. “We never report thefts to the police, even if we know exactly who the culprit is,” says the frustrated employee. “As a luxury hotel, we can’t risk the bad publicity.”
Such a laissez faire policy is standard practice at many five-star hotels. This has more to do with legal considerations than a fear of being trashed by a disgruntled guest in a Yelp review. “Usually hoteliers won’t do anything except replace the stolen item,” says Keilmann. “That’s because it’s impossible to prove guilt in court when so many hotel employees have access to the guest’s room.
Even when thieves are caught in flagrante, criminal prosecution is extremely rare. That happened last July in front of the five-star Villa Royal Purnama in Bali. The video of the crime scene, which quickly went viral, shows a hotel employee searching the luggage of a family who has just checked out of the Purnama. Each time a stolen item is uncovered, it’s presented to the camera like a hunting trophy. The haul included towels, a telephone, coat hangers, a hairdryer, baskets, soap dispensers, decorative bowls and a tissue box. Somebody off-camera shouts: “I can pay!” This offer is met by a stern rebuke: “Stop! This is not about the money. I know you have a lot of money. This is no respect … you just steal – no respect.” The family paid restitution, and no arrests were made.
There is an alternative to this life of crime. Nobody knows this better than Peter Greenberg. Over two decades of generous expense account travel have given him an appreciation for five-star living. So when the veteran TV journalist renovated his California home, he furnished it with 47 products from some of his favorite hotels – all of them paid for. He sleeps on a custom Sealy mattress made for the Four Seasons. In the master bath is the same 16in ceiling-mounted shower head found at London’s Savoy. The commercial grade kitchen appliances were sourced from New York’s Mark hotel . And the pool is just like the one at the Westin St John Resort & Villas in the Virgin Islands. Any five-star guest could do the same makeover. Just ring up the concierge and start taking notes.
For everyone else: travel with steamer trunks, rent a moving van and have a damn good backstory.