How is stealing from hotel rooms a perfect crime? Here’s what you can and cannot take when you checkout.(Unsplash)
How is stealing from hotel rooms a perfect crime? Here’s what you can and cannot take when you checkout.(Unsplash)

The Taste With Vir: How is stealing from hotel rooms a perfect crime? Here’s what you can and cannot take when you checkout

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi talks about why one steals from hotel rooms or the minibar for food, beverages and paraphernalia and what makes a perfect crime.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 30, 2019 06:11 PM IST

A friend of mine who used to work at one of Delhi’s oldest five star hotels (opened in the late 1970s) told me this story. It dates, I imagine, to the late 1980s.

My friend worked on the F&B side of the hotel (she was manager of the coffee shop; one of the first women to hold the job). One morning, they told her that, even though this was, strictly speaking, not part of her responsibilities, could she go and help them at Front office and Security? There was a crisis.

My friend went over and was startled to see the most famous actress of her times standing there with all her luggage. The actress was checking out but Security had been informed that items belonging to the hotel were missing from her room. So they had stopped her – after much trepidation and some internal discussion --- at reception before she left.

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They would have to open her bags but as the actress had seemed so outraged, the hotel had decided that it was best to bring in a woman manager to oversee the search.

At first my friend was surprised to see the actress in question because she did not have her face on. She had not painted a mouth on to her lips, her eyes had yet to be created with make-up, etc.

But her surprise at seeing the lady in question was nothing compared to the astonishment she felt when she looked at the contents of the suitcases. Almost everything that had not been physically nailed down in the suite had been stolen. Towels, bathrobes, hairdryers, glasses, roses, etc. Even two paintings from the wall had been taken down, carefully wrapped in newspaper and packed away.

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The actress was outraged but beneath all that unpainted anger, there was also deep embarrassment. The hotel took away everything she had stolen, repacked her bags and let her leave for Mumbai.

Afterwards, my friend wondered: The actress made lakhs and lakhs per movie. She paid for nothing. Producers usually picked up all her bills. Her career was at a peak. So why did she need to steal? Was it some kind of compulsion?

I was reminded of that incident when I saw the viral video on Twitter of an Indian family having their bags searched outside a South East Asian hotel. (I think it was Bali but I am not sure.) As the Indians huff and puff, each bag yields more and more things stolen from the hotel. And the family, at first angry and indignant, then starts groveling and trying to hug the hotel security guys to make up. What makes it worse is that the thieves look prosperous. They can afford to pay for everything. They did it because they enjoy stealing.

On Twitter, there has been huge outrage over the video. People feel – accurately --- that the thieves have shamed India. There have been calls to have their passports cancelled. And many people have responded by pointing out --- also accurately— that far too many Indians behave like this when they travel.

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Some of the anger is justified. But, as the incident with the actress in Delhi demonstrates, this doesn’t happen only when Indians travel abroad. It happens in India too. Ask any hotel person and they will tell you of the number of times they have had to decide whether to stop thieving guests or to just write off the expense.

My friend, Shahid Siddiqui, tweeted about a newspaper proprietor who was caught stealing things from his hotel room abroad when he was part of the Prime Minister’s media party. And anyone who has travelled with an Indian group will know that you have to allow an extra half an hour at check-out because various members of the party will have raided the minibars in their rooms. At the cash desk when they are confronted with these expenses and asked to pay up, they nearly always refuse and get into fights with cashiers.

So, why do we do it? Why do so many of us steal things from hotel rooms?

I imagine that about 2% of the thieves are kleptomaniacs who need help. But the rest are just greedy and characterless. They do it because they think they can get away with it. They think that no one will know and by the time the theft has been noticed, they will have skipped the city and it will be too late for the hotel to do anything about it. The Indian family who were caught at the South East Asian hotel probably believed that they would have been on a flight back to India by the time the theft was discovered. The Bollywood actress knew that the hotel would have noticed the missing items but believed that the cost would have been debited to the producer who was paying for her suite.

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Basically all thieving from hotels comes down to this: people think that it is the perfect crime, one that will not be discovered till they are gone. Or that even when the missing items are noticed someone else will take the rap.

During the uproar that erupted on Twitter after the video was posted, many people asked what it was okay to steal and what should never be removed from hotel rooms. Well, broadly, speaking, this is not a question you need to ask. Anyone who steals a painting, a pillow or a phone knows that this is not on. But there are some grey areas, so here is my take on what’s okay and what’s not.

Bathrobes: Never. Not even if they have your name on them.

Towels: Mostly: never. But I will admit that there have been times when I have wrapped something fragile in a hotel towel. But I always bring the towel back on my next trip.

Minibar: No. You pay for anything you take out of the minibar.

Water: If a hotel puts bottles of water in your room and you want to take one for the journey to the airport, that’s fine. Nobody minds.

Fruit Basket: A question of degree. If there is a large fruit basket in your room, you can’t tip its contents into your handbag and take it all home. But if you take an apple with you for the flight, that’s fine. The odd piece of fruit is entirely ok.

Stationery: Yes. Hotels don’t mind if you take their writing paper, pens or pencils.

Teabags, sugar sachets, coffee capsules etc. No, of course not. How despo are you?

Complimentary wines: Some hotels will greet regular guests with a bottle of wine with their compliments. They expect you to drink it while you are there but don’t really mind if you take it with you. (This is theoretical. Most times the wine they put in the rooms is so bad that nobody wants to drink it anyway. The exception is ITC Hotels outside Mumbai.)

Toiletries: The one area where you can steal. If you have used the soap, the shampoo, the shower cap etc. then take it with you. They are not going to re-use it anyway. Unopened little bottles of shampoo are a more complicated matter ethically but frankly, most hotels don’t mind.

Books: Hotels often leave books in your room. You cannot steal them. You leave them for the next guest to read.

Chocolates: Yes but not from the minibar. If they leave a chocolate on your pillow you can take it.

Flower arrangements: No. they are part of the room’s fittings. But if you pick out one rose or something like that, hotels will understand.

Cutlery, crockery ashtrays etc.: Do you even need to ask? Of course, not.

Hangers: No. Cheap hotels have those idiotic hangers with no hooks so that you can’t steal them. Better hotels have normal hangers because they trust you. Be worthy of that trust.

Bathroom Slippers: If they are of the toweling variety and you have used them, then yes. At a beach resort, if they put rubber chappals in your room and you use them, then yes, take them with you.

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And I think that about covers it. Here’s the golden rule though. If it can’t be re-used (soaps etc.) then there may be a case for taking it.

Otherwise, anything you take it just stealing.

And it makes you a thief.

Remember that.

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