Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hotel Checkin Scam

My hotel room phone rang Friday night at 11:34pm. The man with the Texas accent on the other end patiently explained that he was the hotel manager, there had been a problem with my registration with the hotel, that he was sorry, and that they would give me a 25% discount on my stay. But first, for insurance reasons, they needed to put my check-in information back into the computer. I could do this over the phone, or down at the front desk.

Immediately, tiny alarm bells went off in my head. First, we had recently checked in, and I had made my initial reservation online.  How could it be that they lost my information?

Second, the man who checked me in at the front desk was of Indian decent. He spoke with a mild Indian accent. I stay at Best Westerns quite frequently (I like them), and they often seem to be run as family operations. A manager with a strong Texan accent seemed possible, but just different enough from my expectation that I was put on guard.

I asked what information was needed, and the Texan thief replied, "Oh, I need all the checkin information you would have given the front desk."

"Like what?"

"Oh, well, did you pay with cash or credit card?"

"Credit card. Why does that matter for insurance purposes?"

"Oh, well, we need that information to make the record complete. You can come down to the front desk and give us the information there if you prefer."

"Ok, I'll be right down."

"OK, bye."

I rode the elevator to the lobby where the (still Indian) manager at the front desk offered me this enthusiastic wisdom: "Oh, it's a scam that's going around. Never give out your personal information!"

I laughed, thanked him, and returned to my room.

Clearly the Texan thief was playing a couple of tricks to get my information. He called my room late at night (not long after checking in either), which might catch folks in a vulnerable frame of mind. Most guests would be in bed, sleepy, and not inclined to do much more than get rid of the man on the phone as quickly as possible.

The thief offered a dumb story about insurance, which fits with most people's idea of the industry: dumb and inconvenient. "Wow, gosh, it figures that those insurance guys want to ruin my vacation too! If there is one thing that this thief and I can agree on, it's that insurance companies make life difficult. I remember my second cousin Alfred, his house got flooded by a hurricane, but the insurance company said that the wind blew the water into the house, and he didn't have enough wind insurance!" And so on.

The identity thief also offered money (25% off my room), and he offered the less convenient (but useless to his scam) choice to visit the front desk. Why would a thief offer the option to go to the front desk? Plausibility. Except that a 25% discount sounded a bit too good to be true. Although $25 for a 5 minute conversation sounds like a OK consulting rate, it is rare that businesses value their customers time at even close to $300/hour.

I also felt like I was being railroaded into two courses of action by the thief. If you can pull it off, multiple choice has lovely negotiating results: "you can give us money this way, or you can give us money that way!" If you don't pull it off, then I might come up with imaginative alternatives to your railroad tracks:

  • I could demand that you come up to my room, show an ID, and take my personal information through the little gap the security chain allows for
  • I could hang up and dial the front desk and ask about the call
  • I could pack up, throw the TV through the hotel window in a fit of anger, and drive to another hotel
  • I could tell the caller that it's not my problem that they lost my information

Encounters like these are another reason why learning about negotiation has a lot of value. When I recognize gambits, I immediately go into a more problem-solving, cautious frame of mind. If you're interested in an entertaining and educational read on the subject, I suggest Secrets of Power Negotiating*, by Roger Dawson.

Like the Manager at the Best Western says: Never give out your personal information. Such wisdom. I'm glad I didn't defenestrate the television.


*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Buying items through this link is much appreciated!

3 comments:

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Brandon said...

You're lucky the scam wasn't, call the person who just got to the room back to the front desk so that they leave their valuables behind in the room neatly packaged for quick removal. Best course of action was probably to hang up and call the front desk. This is my general response to anyone who is soliciting my information over the telephone. Having no way to authenticate them, I ask them who they are and where they are calling from and tell them I'll call them back at the listed number for their business. Once you have them off the phone you can choose to call or not -- oftentimes not.

John M. P. Knox said...

You're right Brandon, I should have called the front desk. I wasn't thinking very clearly.

Luckily, the thief didn't make an appearance.

If I had been really alert, it would have been fun to try to trick them into calling "my cellphone" -- the local police department. Probably pointless, but funny.