Securing Your Home Away from Home

For all the time we spend ensuring that our homes are difficult to break into, we do travel periodically, and have to rely on the security of hotel rooms.  There are, however, a few things we can do to help mitigate the risks involved.

Go ahead and consider your hotel doorknob nothing more than a latch that keeps the door closed against drafts.  Unsurprisingly, hotel latching systems suffer the ignominy of being one of the most targeted – and successfully hacked – pieces of door hardware out there.  Part of that stems from some nations / jurisdictions requiring mechanical backup locks to the electronic equipment, and the doorknob companies / hotels frequently cheap out on the lock cores.  Part of this is sheer ingenuity:

(The good news is this bypass can be prevented with the simple application of a towel (and you do know where your towel is, right?).)  And part of this is just people intentionally targeting common pieces of equipment and demonstrating vulnerabilities that put millions of rooms at risk, because, honestly, discovering the vulnerability and publicizing it actually better than keeping it quiet.

Unfortunately, hotel door locks and the ways of bypassing them change almost every month, so I cannot really get into the topic except to say “do not rely on them”, and this includes the thumbturn on the inside – it is part of the same, flawed mechanism.

Get in the habit of using the “privacy lock” on the inside – the chain, or slider bar, or other similar device that allows the door to open a crack and no further.  In general, I advise against installing these devices in houses; they are notoriously easy to bypass, typically not constructed from the best materials, and frequently only secured to the trim around the door.  However, hotels already have them, so you might as well use them, and in commercial instances they are mounted to steel door frames, significantly increasing their strength.

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Given that basically nothing attached to a hotel door or its frame can be considered “secure”, consider adding your own security equipment.  When it comes to keeping a door from opening, it is hard to beat an average doorstop in effectiveness-for-cost; I chose that particular one because hotel doors frequently have very narrow gaps at the bottom, in order to optimize their ancillary function as fire barriers.  The humble doorstop can also be upgraded to include an integrated alarm, such that when the door is opened, not only is it jammed, it also lets you know that someone is on the other side.  Finally, there are some slightly-more gadgety devices out there that seem to rely on wedging themselves on the strikeplate for the door latch, and then blocking the door closed with a bumper; I have not personally played with one, so I am hesitant to suggest them.

Apart from the mechanical aspects of your door’s security, there are, of course, some mental ones as well.  Never open the door unless you know who is on the other side, use the room’s peephole-block or fashion one yourself, keep control of your room keys at all times, and so forth.

Likewise, all of the above security measures only work when you are in the room.  What about when you leave your stuff there?

Do not buy expensive-looking luggage, and a little bit of wear on it is not a bad thing.  Basically, do not make it look like you have money, even if you do not actually have money.  Your most likely threat when you are not in the room is room service, and you do not want to plant the idea in their head that they should go rifling through your property.

Try to rent a room with a safe, and use it.  For some reason, room safes have not become an industry standard yet, so you may have to specifically ask for one.  They typically are only about large enough to hold a laptop or DSLR, so do not plan on keeping your entire luggage in there – select the items you find most valuable and keep them in the safe if you are out of the room.  Also, bear in mind that most hotel safes have a master unlock functionality, in case a customer forgets their combination or leaves the safe locked after they check out.  Unfortunately, I have yet to stay in a hotel that has changed the master unlock code from what the factory set it to, so it would be unwise to consider the safes to be completely secure – as with most security, they keep honest people honest, and serve as a delaying measure.

If the room does not have a safe, inquire about one behind the front desk.  Hotels frequently only like using this for truly high-value items – it is only so big – and it will limit your access and potentially inform people of what you have, but it could beat leaving whatever it is loose in the room.

If there is no safe at all, consider using lockable, hard-sided luggage and a bike chain / cable lock.  On the one hand, this pretty clearly telegraphs that you think you have something worth stealing.  On the other hand, if you lock the luggage closed and wrap the chain or cable around the water lines for the sink or toilet, people are unlikely to try to make off with it for fear of attracting undue attention.  Obviously do not break/damage the hotel infrastructure yourself.

If all else fails, you can put tracking devices in your luggage or on your high-value items.  I am fond of the Tile ecosystem, on account of the set-and-forget nature and relatively inexpensive per-unit cost, but there are others as well.  There are limitations to these types of systems, notably that they are not “real time” and they do require someone else with the app to detect your Tile before its location is relayed back to you.  On the other hand, real-time GPS units require SIM cards and frequent battery replacements/recharging and sometimes even monthly service plans, so there are always trade-offs.

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Leaving your valuables in the car is not a good option.  Certainly take them with you if you are going to be driving around all day, but automobiles are notoriously easy to break into if someone really wants to, while hotels, for all their faults, do at least have layers of security to get through.

Do not disclose your room number to delivery people, or, really, anyone.  If someone wants to meet you, do so at the front desk.  If someone has something for you, have them leave it at the front desk.

A lot of this may sound like “common sense”, but you would be surprised at the little things people forget to think about when considering security.

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