Hotel room safes aren’t always

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A consumer told me this week that his wallet and other possessions were stolen from his hotel room safe. He was at one of the casinos here in the western U.S. For the sake of the reputation of the hotel/casino, I won’t offer any more specific information than that.

After doing a little investigation, I uncovered some alarming facts (pun intended!). Safes in hotel rooms are very common these days. Digital and computer technology make us feel safe. The problem is, the same technology makes many of those safes useless.

Hotels need some way to access a locked safe when a fumble-fingered guest pushes the wrong button or forgets the “personal” code. There are basically two ways hotels are able to unlock your room safe, without your “personal” code. One is a reset button, which is carefully hidden from plain sight. The other is a digital “backdoor” code, often as simple as pressing the star button twice and entering all nines or all zeros.

Safes with a series of button pushes are usually shipped to the hotel, all with the same reset code. It is then up to the hotel to reprogram the safe with the hotel’s own unique “backdoor” code. All too often the maintenance staff does not replace the factory codes.

LESSON: Don’t leave really valuable things in your hotel room safe. A couple of bucks — no big deal. If you’ve really hit the jackpot, ask the hotel management to hold your money — AND GIVE YOU A RECEIPT!

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SPEAKING OF JACKPOTTING: That’s the term for the new attacks on drive up/walk up ATMs that is starting to show up around the country. Sophisticated techno-thieves, using computers and some high-tech skills, can drill a small hole, almost unnoticeable, in the outside part of an ATM, hook the computer up and force the ATM to start spitting out $20 bills until the machine is completely empty. This kind of theft doesn’t directly affect us consumers, except if the bank loses money, guess whose fees go up?

What can you, as a consumer do? Here it is: Almost all ATM technicians work during business hours. Almost all thieves don’t. Most of the ATM tech and maintenance work is done inside the bank, behind the scenes. In other words, if you see a panel truck from Acme ATM Repair pull up to your favorite bank ATM after hours, in the dark, it might be a nice gesture to call 911 and ask the local public servants to do a drive by. Call the cops; don’t try to play citizen detective.

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SHREDDERS — CUT THE RISK: In my opinion, in this time of rampant identity theft, the answer is yes. A local consumer called and told me about losing a few thousand dollars from her bank account. The crooks went “dumpster diving,” sorting through the lady’s trash while it sat out at the curb, waiting for pick up. They found a bank statement, a utility bill, and other identifiable documents.

The crooks’ next step was to get a “replacement” driver’s license and then go to a bank branch, out of town, and have a few counter checks made up until her “regular checks” arrived from Quickbooks. The bank clerk obliged. Later that day the crooks cashed a few thousand dollars in checks, and disappeared.

Another piece of equipment for the home office is never an exciting addition to your office décor, but it may just save you thousands of dollars by preventing identity theft. The really good news is that they shred important documents so they can’t be used, and most importantly — they’re cheap! They used to cost upward of $100 and were big, noisy and bulky. I just bought one from Amazon for less than $30, and it works great! There is a great video at: https://youtu.be/xBbQ842yVlU. The one I bought cost $29.99 with free delivery if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

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BLOOD — A GIFT: Not exactly a “consumer issue,” but nevertheless an important item that most of us don’t think about. Due to the unexpected flu epidemic, which is racing through the country, blood donations have fallen to a dangerously low level. The American Red Cross works very hard at educating the public. Consider these facts from the American Red Cross home page:

• Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood.

• Approximately 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the U.S.

• Nearly 7,000 units of platelets and 10,000 units of plasma are needed daily in the U.S.

• Nearly 21 million blood components are transfused each year in the U.S.

• The average red blood cell transfusion is approximately 3 pints.

• The blood type most often requested by hospitals is type O.

• The blood used in an emergency is already on the shelves before the event occurs.

• It is estimated that sickle cell disease affects 90,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. About 1,000 babies are born with the disease each year. Sickle cell patients can require frequent blood transfusions throughout their lives.

• According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.69 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2017. Many of them will need blood, sometimes daily, during their chemotherapy treatment.

• A single car accident victim can require as many as 100 pints of blood.

Bottom line, if you’re able to give blood, please consider doing so.

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IRS CALLS, PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE, MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS AND SO ON:

My strong advice is don’t engage with anyone calling you about anything regarding money. That may sound harsh, but if you take my advice, you probably will never fall victim to a phone scam. If you can’t resist, tell the caller to send you the information. Honestly, even that’s a bad idea. BEST PRACTICE: HANG UP!

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MORE GOT YOU’S THAN GOT ME’S: In the past week, more of my calls (approximately 100), have been consumers in our area telling me how they recognized and avoided a scam. Wow, that makes me feel good! Keep it up and as the saying goes — “be careful out there!”

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REMEMBER BILL BROOKS: “He’s On Your Side”

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I have many more tips and interesting cases that I’m working on. Call me at 208-699-0506, or email me at BillBrooksAdvocate@gmail.com or fax me at 866-362-9266. You can follow me at www.billbrooksconsumeradvocate.com. I am available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups. Bill Brooks is a consumer advocate and the broker and owner of Bill Brooks Real Estate in Coeur d’Alene.

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