You can’t trust anything anymore. Spend the night at a hotel and get a call from the front desk and it could turn out to be a con artist trying to steal your credit card number. It happened recently to hotel guests in two cities.
People staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dallas, Texas, got these bogus calls in mid-June. I spoke to one of those guests who asked that I not use her name. I’ll call her Edith.
Edith was sound asleep when the phone rang at 2:30 a.m. The caller claimed to be a hotel employee at the front desk.
“He told me they had a glitch in their computer system and had lost all of the credit card numbers,” she remembers. “My first reaction was, ‘OK, but you’re letting me know this at 2:30 in the morning?’ ”
He said he had to call because they needed to finish their audit by 3 a.m. And he gave Edith an option. She could give him the credit card number over the phone or come down to the lobby with her card.
Edith says the caller was polite and apologetic. He even said she would receive a 40 percent discount to compensate her for the inconvenience.
Edith would not give out her card number. She hung up, dialed the front desk and was told other guests were getting similar calls. That’s when she knew someone was trying to scam her.
“He sounded very credible,” she says. “It’s easy to see how someone would fall for it."
When she got home Edith contacted her local Better Business Bureau, which immediately put out a nationwide alert.
“She didn’t fall for it, but apparently 20 other guests in the hotel did get the call that night and at least one reported giving out their credit card number,” says Mechele Mills, CEO/President of the Better Business Bureau of Central East Texas.
The same scam took place at the Seattle Hilton a week ago.
In this case, the scammer called at 4 a.m. and reached about 20 guests. The pitch was basically the same: The guest’s credit card information had been lost and was needed right away.
The Seattle Hilton’s general manager, Frank Finneran, told the Puget Sound Business Journal he was surprised by the attempted credit card theft. “It was a nerve-racking morning for us,” he told the paper.
So how did the scammers call rooms without going through the hotel switchboard?
"Someone was able to break into a hotel phone system and contact guests directly without going through the front desk,” says Andy Olson with the Washington Lodging Association.
An alert posted on the association’s web site explained that the scammer called a direct extension and then when the extension was forwarded to voicemail, the caller hit the * (transfer) key and input a random room number.
“The hotel was able to reprogram their phone system to prevent this from happening again, and we strongly recommend working with your phone service provider to take any necessary steps to protect against this type of scam,” according to the association’s website.
When asked about these incidents, John Forrest Ales, a spokesperson for Hilton Worldwide, sent me the following statement:
"The safety and privacy of our guests is our top priority. Brand standards require that incoming callers correctly identify the last name of a registered guest before being transferred to a guest room. If additional billing information is needed during a guest's stay, consumers should provide this information at the front desk, and never over the phone."
Lesson learned: You must always be on guard
“This is a very old and common scam in the hotel business,” hotel security consultant Anthony Roman tells me. “It does not go away.”
Roman says it does not require any particular technical skills. And it can happen at any hotel or motel. Instead of hacking into a database to get credit card numbers, the bad guys hope to dupe their victims into providing them voluntarily.
All they need is what sounds like a plausible story and to catch their targets off guard. That’s why they call in the middle of the night.
“People are groggy, it’s inconvenient for them to go downstairs, so they give the caller their account number,” explains the BBB’s Mills.
Rules of the road
Most hotels employees will never call you after 9 p.m. And they certainly wouldn’t call to ask for your credit card number. Take care of all your financial business face-to-face at the front desk.
Imagine how awful it would be if you gave your account number to a crook at the start of a vacation or business trip? You could cancel the card, but that might leave you without a way to charge your expenses.
Whether you’re at home or on the road, the same rule applies. Never give your credit card information to an unknown caller, even if you’re in a nice hotel and the person on the line claims to be at the front desk.