Customer or thief?

09 March 2006
Customer or thief?

In retrospect, the name - Elvis Borrow - should have been a bit of a giveaway. But initially the e-mail asking to book rooms for four people for 10 nights at the 12-bedroom Dormy House hotel in Southampton seemed not only genuine but, coming as it did in the normally quiet month of January, most welcome.

"I got back to him confirming the dates and prices, and he seemed keen to book it almost immediately," recalls owner Angela Holloway, with what is now a rather rueful laugh. But by the time the next e-mail arrived from Mr Borrow, alarm bells were starting to ring loudly.

"We are going to send you the Visa account information that will cover the cost of our accommodation, and the necessary arrangement for the delegates," it started promisingly.

It went on to outline how an arrangement had been made with a car hire firm that required prepayment and, "because of security reasons and confidentiality", only one person - Holloway - could handle the transaction. It said: "You are required to charge the total cost of £1,620 [for room and car hire], deduct a 50% deposit charge and send £1,000 via Western Union money Transfer [sic] to the car hiring agent, whose information will be forwarded to you once this is confirmed."

It concluded: "The remaining balance… will be paid CASH when they [sic] delegates arrive at your hotel."

Holloway says: "I told them I was unable to do as they requested, and since then it has just gone dead. I was lucky because I have been in the trade for many years but, if I had been a young receptionist in a large hotel, it might have been different."

The hotel spiv, con-artist or fraudster has been part of the hospitality landscape for as long as the industry itself. Think of urbane chancers in films or on TV played by the likes of David Niven or Clive Owen, or the fake "Lord Melbury" in Fawlty Towers.

Hotel chains, perhaps not surprisingly, often become remarkably twitchy at the mere mention of the word "security". The cloak-and-dagger response from one landmark London hotel to Caterer‘s request for a chat with its security manager pretty much sums up the attitude of most.

"No one really knows who they are in the hotel except for the staff - we prefer them not to be recognised," said the spokeswoman. Somewhat cryptically, she added: "Security should be like public relations - you use it but you should not really see it."

Identity theft
That may be so, but with the rise of electronic fraud and identity theft (now estimated to cost the UK £1.7b every year), hotels need
to be on their guard more than ever. Con artists, it appears, are not only a staple of films and sitcoms, but are a growing menace.

"The biggest issue at the moment is card fraud over the internet when making a booking," says Detective Sergeant Andy Swindells of the London Metropolitan Police's Westminster Hotel Crime Unit.

He explains: "A booking is made online, the card appears genuine, the hotel does not ask for any proof of identity and so the person just sits back, drinks Champagne on ice for a couple of nights, canes the room service and then leaves, along with the rest of the contents of the mini-bar."

In that scenario, he stresses, it is really the hotel that is at fault for not asking for ID, PIN or signature verification. "But," he adds, "we have a lot of that in the West End."

Another common fraud is forging a big company's letterhead, putting a compromised credit card number on it, faxing it through to the hotel and getting the first night charged to the card, after which the fraudster disappears.

"Most of the five-star de luxe hotels, at least in Westminster, have been done through this scam," Swindells reveals. "Most bookings done this way are legitimate, and it is easy for hotels to get complacent about them."

A similar scam, explains Linda Crook, head of security at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in Knightsbridge, London, and chairman of the Institute of Hotel Security Managers (IHSM), is forging a corporate letterhead, faxing through a booking, not turning up and then demanding a refund.

Another, as Dormy House's Holloway reveals, is the one in which the cheque only arrives as your guests turn up and bounces after they have left. Another is the phone call asking for directions to be faxed over, when the number is a premium-rate line. "It is mind-boggling what goes on sometimes," she laments. "They seem to think hotels are a soft target."

The IHSM, with the police, helps to circulate information on suspected or known fraudsters, passing around descriptions and warnings. Such circulating of information recently led to the nabbing of a noted bag thief who, having escaped from prison, was spotted by a concierge at a hotel at London Bridge. "Within eight minutes," Crook recalls, "he had arrived on my ground and we were able to re-arrest him."

It is not just in London that hotels are co-operating. Glasgow, for example, has operated a Hotel Watch scheme since 1992, in which city centre hotels use e-mails and faxes to alert members to local incidents, and hold monthly meetings to share information and best practice.

Chip and PIN
One good piece of news is that, despite the rise in identity theft and online fraud, the introduction of chip-and-PIN technology has already led to a decline in face-to-face card fraud, says Mark Bowerman of card security organisation Cardwatch. He advises that, even when a transaction is initially conducted online or over the phone, it is important to get some form of signature or PIN verification when a guest arrives at the hotel.

Using chip and PIN, the hotel will not be liable for a fraudulent transaction as long as it has followed chip-and-PIN procedures. But if it bends the rules - for instance, by not taking a PIN - it probably will be liable.

Bowerman warns: "Where hotels need to be vigilant is when people claim to have forgotten their PIN. They need to be wary and follow set procedures that have been put in place by head office for dealing with this eventuality."

There also needs to be an element of discretion. If it is an elderly, regular guest who is well-known to staff and management who has forgotten his or her PIN, then it is probably not too much of a risk to accept a signature. But with a stranger it is a different story. Bowerman says: "You have to work it out with your bank, in what situations will the liability lie, and pass that on to your sales staff."

One of the difficulties hotel security teams face is that, as a non-profit making arm of any hotel, they often do not get the priority they should, says the IHSM's Crook. "A lot of hotels, even bigger ones, will not want to spend the money to bring in a team to counteract these problems," she complains. "When the July 7 bombs went off in London, I had 300 calls from hotels that day that did not have security, asking me what to do."

Sometimes, theft and fraud are perpetuated by individuals chancing their arm; at other times, it is more sophisticated and even linked to organised criminal outfits.

And sometimes hotels do not exactly help themselves. The De Vere Grand hotel in Brighton hit the headlines in January when it embarrassingly dumped thousands of documents revealing credit card numbers, addresses, phone numbers and signatures of guests in an open skip.

For managers, training is the key, both for themselves and for their workers. And with staff turnover normally high in hotels, this training needs to be refreshed regularly. "You should do it at induction and perhaps as often as once a fortnight," Crook says.

Often, simply being friendly and helpful does the trick - thieves and fraudsters do not like drawing attention to themselves or being questioned. Crook says: "You just need four words - ‘Can I help you?'."

It is also a good idea to have cast-iron policies and procedures in place about such matters as proof of identity, methods of payment and so on. These, importantly, must have been communicated to the staff and be clearly understood. Crook says: "Staff need to be able to say to someone, who may be a genuine customer, ‘I am sorry, you need to go to reception, I cannot help you.' Nine out of 10 genuine guests will appreciate that you have stood your ground."

Hoteliers looking for advice should, in the first instance, approach their local crime prevention officer. The IHSM also runs regular awareness raising programmes.

Being proactive as well as vigilant can pay immediate dividends. In 2002, the Radisson Edwardian group spent more than £250,000 upgrading the security systems at all its London hotels, and quickly saw the number of criminal incidents (mostly thefts and bag snatches) plunge by 80%.

Open and welcoming
But, as the Met's Swindells concedes, hotels by their nature have to be open, accessible and welcoming. As such, they will always be seen by some as potentially easy pickings. "People come in purporting to be guests, steal and get away with it," he says. "There are some professional thieves that will deal only with hotels because they think they are safer than stealing from houses."

Fraud and cons are unlikely ever to be stamped out completely, and dishonest people will always dream up ever-cleverer scams. The challenge for the hotelier is, as best you can, to stay one step ahead as often as possible. Especially if you get an e-mail from Elvis Borrow.

The conman's story I am going straight now, says Wilfred De'Ath, but I have a sweet nostalgia for the many years when I lived in the grand hotels of England and France without ever paying a bill.

My record was three months at the Queens in Leeds, a very good hotel. I say "grand hotels" because I was always reluctant to cheat a poor old lady doing humble bed-and-breakfast in a side street - although I have done that too, in my time.

Swindling great hotels always struck me as, essentially, a victimless crime. They never had to put up their prices because of me. The only people who conceivably suffered were the shareholders of large insurance companies who insured the hotels for theft by people like me.

Also - and this is important - no lawyer has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction the difference between a hotel debt and any other kind of debt. After all, if you owe your tailor or the telephone company a few hundred pounds, they don't send for the police, do they?

The routine was always the same. As long as you present yourself well at reception ( I am a smartly dressed, well-spoken Oxford graduate), you can get in almost anywhere, even without luggage, although I always carried at least a plastic bag.

In recent years, they have started asking to see a credit card, but even that can be circumvented - you have left yours in your car (non-existent) or you have simply mislaid it.

Quite often, I used a false name. My usual choice was Dr Thomas O'Meara, although the doctor could be dodgy if they mistook you for a medical doctor. "There's an old lady in number 37, doc, not feeling too clever. Mind taking a look at her?"

In fact, I was Thomas O'Meara, a world authority on the lesser poems of Thomas Hardy. This generally went down well unless, by ill chance, there was another Hardy authority staying in the hotel, in which case the manager would be anxious to bring you both together in the hotel bar.

This actually happened to me in Bridport, Dorset (I was asked: "Which are your favourite poems?"), and led to me getting four months imprisonment for "deception".

Another pseudonym I sometimes used was Dr Jason Fazackerley, but that led to difficulties too, because the hotel manager's wife at the Queens in Southsea (she actually rather fancied me) pointed out to her husband that Jason was a young man's name and I was in my mid-50s. This led to her husband becoming suspicious - he resented, in any case, my interest in his wife - and getting me arrested. I got another four months.

The art of deceiving a hotel is to gauge when they are likely to present you with the bill and do a runner the night before.

In England, you can push it for about a week. In France, where things are much more lax, they often don't present you with the bill for about a month.

At the four-star Moulin Blanc near Avignon in Provence, I lived in luxury for four weeks, then simply walked out through the French windows by the swimming pool when the receptionist said she was coming round with my bill. Fortunately, my room was on the ground floor, something I had taken care of in advance.

I got caught a couple of times, as I have explained, and served a couple of four-month sentences, two months in real terms, but what is that against the literally hundreds of months I spent living in luxury for nothing?

In prison, I was known as the hotel hopper and, with very few exceptions, all the cons and most of the screws were on my side, since they shared my contempt for grand hotels - and good luck to you mate, if you can get away with it…

I have no regrets. An extremely callow young probation officer, Lorraine, once tried to get me to express remorse for my "crimes" but I couldn't in all honesty do so. It would have been deeply hypocritical. She said that hotels had to put up their prices because of me and innocent people suffered, but that is not, in fact, the case. No one suffers.

The hotel owners of England and France are having a rest from me at present, but one day I expect I shall resume my activities. Dr O'Meara may be coming to a hotel near you.

Wilfred De'Ath is a writer and columnist for the Oldie

The stuff of nightmares… Playboy conman Juan Carlos Guzman-Betancourt rifled safeboxes of suites in the Savoy and the Dorchester in London and other top hotels around the world, stealing £150,000-worth of jewellery, cash, and clothes.

Guzman-Betancourt used a series of false identities to con hotel staff. Dressed immaculately and fluent in several languages, he would say he had lost his room key and forgotten his safe code. Staff would then let him into their most expensive rooms, unlock the safe box and leave him to it.

His luck finally ran out in December last year, when he was spotted by police officers in a central London supermarket.

In 2002, Anthony Enrique Gignac impersonated a Saudi prince to stay at the Sheraton Studio City hotel in Orlando, Florida.

He had already run up bills of nearly $30,000 (£20,550) on a platinum credit card in the name of Khaled al Saud, the grandson of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and one of the wealthiest men in the world, when an American Express investigator tipped off the police.

Even when being bundled in handcuffs into a police car, he continued the pretence, shouting to nearby reporters: "Call the embassy."

In the same year, convicted fraudster Paul Thompson, who had previously cheated hotels out of £100,000-worth of accommodation and services, left prison and immediately stayed fraudulently in hotels in the Lake District and Hampshire, before being re-arrested in Gloucestershire.

In 2001, escaped prisoner Allan Goodin was jailed after staying in hotels and guesthouses for almost a year, using stolen credit cards and chequebooks.

Also in 2001, an unnamed conman was revealed to have targeted major London hotels, including the Ritz, Dukes hotel and the Chesterfield. He tricked staff by pretending to be expecting tickets for a theatrical or sports event, which would be delivered before his arrival, and asking the hotel to pay a courier by cash, using a credit card number as security. He then received the cash from the courier, while the hotel was given an empty package.

Tips on how to curb crime

  • Be vigilant - a Metropolitan police survey of two adjacent London hotels, one notorious for incidents and one crime-free, found only one difference between the two: the alertness of staff.
  • Be prepared to challenge people - don't be afraid to ask suspicious characters if you can help. Genuine guests will normally welcome your attention, fraudsters will not and may panic.
  • Update your crime and safety training regularly - ensure staff know your processes, how they should be reacting and what they should be on the lookout for.
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest scams - liaise with your local crime prevention officer or get advice from organisations such as the Institute of Hotel Security Managers.
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