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In RECOIL OFFGRID Issue 34, on sale October 29th, we interview two travel experts regarding important considerations for hotel security. Whether you're traveling internationally for business or domestically to visit family, trips require a different approach to security than you might rely on while at home. However, by taking a few simple precautions and heightening your awareness, you'll be able to maintain your safety, security, and privacy wherever you go.
William Echo (a pseudonym necessary for his current career) is a corporate security professional and former law enforcement officer with more than a decade of experience in developing, implementing, and testing protective security protocols. Opposite him is Micah Dalton, a true modern-day nomad who has spent the better part of the last decade roaming the planet in search of good whiskey and great adventure. Along the way, he has made himself a perpetual student of street lessons, and trained with some very specialized experts, including OFFGRID contributor Ed Calderon. While he doesn’t have any “uniformed” career experience, the sheer volume of his practical street wisdom is nearly unmatched, even among our own cadre.
Due to limited page real-estate, we weren't able to fit everything we discussed with William and Micah in the print article. So, we've published a few additional questions from our interview exclusively here on OFFGRIDweb. Read on for some hotel security and travel safety tips, and keep an eye out for more advice in The “Baits” Hotel in Issue 34, available later this month.
Compared to staying at a hotel, what are the security pros and cons of AirBnB?
William Echo: Cost may be a pro sometimes, and having a full-fledged residence — a full kitchen with utensils, multiple bathrooms, and so on. With that being said, there are no standards for how clean the place is kept (franchise compliance/quality assurance, health department, etc.) and you won’t know if it’s up to your standards until you get there. Most people don’t have a backup plan. Another advantage is that, if hotels in the area are all booked up, AirBnB may be a good option.
Now for the negatives. You have to assume that at least two or three sets of keys (at minimum) are floating around that have 24/7 access to where you’re staying. Alarm system? The owners have the master code, even if they gave you a personalized one during your stay.
Internet? Wired or WiFi? Is it secure? Even if it’s password-protected, is the router (or another device in the home) monitoring and/or hijacking your traffic? The passwords to your bank account? Your work email password? Your Amazon account? Better have a damn good VPN with a full tunnel.
CCTV? If so, do you know where all the cameras are? Sure, you noticed a Ring doorbell on the front porch and maybe a camera on the driveway, but what about the bedrooms? The bathroom? The walk-in closet you changed clothes in? The owners have had time to set things like this up. Can the same thing happen in a hotel? Sure, but it’s more difficult to set up, more likely to get caught, and there are far less places to hide cameras.
Did anyone do a background check on the owners? The majority of hotel staff have a background check conducted prior to hiring. No one hired the owners of the house you’ll be staying at. Are you comfortable with that, especially with everything listed above? I know I’m not. It has happened before and it will happen again. In my opinion, there’s too much risk for AirBnB.
Micah Dalton: My personal favorite aspect of staying in an AirBnB is the gray man factor. Walking out of a hotel onto a city street, you can clearly be seen as a traveler, tourist, or outsider. This immediately makes you an easier target in any environment. But if you’re staying in someone’s house or apartment, it’s much easier to seamlessly blend into the local environment. If keeping a low profile is a priority, AirBnB is a great way to go.
Another great thing is the price point, especially for big or expensive cities. A lot of times it’s cheaper to stay in an inexpensive hotel you found on Hotwire or Agoda. But do your research, because depending on the place, sometimes an AirBnB can be a much better deal. You often get more space than a hotel room for a lower price.
Depending on what type of traveler you are, using your AirBnB host as a resource can be a huge advantage. They are locals, they live there, and know all the best and worst places. Make a connection with them, and they will usually be more than willing to share insider knowledge about their city.
An obvious downside to staying in a house, is that it’s not a hotel. You’re staying in someone else’s home and they usually have a small set of house rules. You have a little more responsibility for the place you’re staying in versus a hotel, but as long as you’re respectful it usually isn’t an issue.
The biggest issue with AirBnB, however, is the safety aspect. You don’t know this person, they may or may not be present during your stay, and you’re on their turf. This goes back to checking reviews. I usually won’t stay in an AirBnB that is brand new or has only a couple mediocre reviews. You don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation, so weigh the pros and cons and listen to your gut.
What can you do to keep your vehicle and its contents safe during your stay?
WE: Park in a lit section of the parking lot close to the main entry doors, if possible. If there are cameras you can see, then park accordingly. If you follow my advice on where to park (near your nearest stairwell) then this response can be confusing. Ultimately, it comes down to weighing the calculated risk for each scenario. If the risk for parking near a stairwell is equal to that of parking near the main entrance, go with the stairwell entrance. More capability, less visibility of outsiders.
Make sure all valuables — including your Oakley sunglasses, work ID cards, loose change, or even your morning breakfast bar — should be stowed out of sight. If you have a rental car that places placards and visible ads on the license frames or windows, make sure to hide those also. Rental cars can mean business travelers, and business travelers mean laptops and money. If you leave a suitcase or bag in an obvious rental car, hiding them from view won’t do much good. You’ve simply just provided an easier transportation method for your adversary. There are no guarantees, but removing temptation and increasing the likelihood of being detected can deter many adversaries. Combine this with the fact that many others won’t be as diligent, and you become the hard target, causing the adversary to find another victim.
MD: A good rule to always follow, no matter where you are, is to make sure there is nothing visible inside your car. If you have a trunk or locking glovebox that isn’t open to the rest of the car, use it. Don’t leave a backpack or duffel bag in the backseat where anyone can see it. If you have valuables that you are planning to leave in your car, move them to your trunk ahead of time. You don’t want anyone who may be watching to see every one of your valuables being moved into the trunk — if they see something they like, they now know where to get it.
Another thing to remember is to park your car where it will be within your sight line. Try to get a room facing the hotel parking lot, and park within view of your window. If you can’t, parking anywhere upfront near an entrance and in a high-traffic area will deter thieves. At night, park under a lamppost or somewhere well-lit. If they know they can be seen, they may be less inclined to even bother.
We’ve heard about hidden cameras found in hotels, such as the recent incident in South Korea where live-streamed footage of 1,600 hotel guests was sold online. What are some ways to scan or manually search for hidden audio or video recording devices?
WE: Most of these devices are on WiFi. A WLAN scanning application can be very helpful to find suspicious network devices — I use FING for iPhone. Check in A/C vents and any area of the apartment/condo that’s elevated, like a shelf above the kitchen cabinets. Use your EDC flashlight to scan around the room and look for a lens reflection. I’ve used these methods for years and still do.
Check the specs on your cellphone cameras (front and rear) and see if they filter infrared light. Many spy cams utilize IR light to see in the dark — if your camera doesn’t filter that light spectrum, you can use this method to detect hidden cameras. If you’re unsure if your camera will detect IR, just point your TV remote at the camera in a dark room and press a button. If you see the LED light up when you press a button, your camera doesn’t filter IR and you’ll be better equipped to detect hidden cameras.
MD: In terms of room safety, look for cameras with a laser detector or a flashlight as previously mentioned. A lot of hotels now have smart TVs which are super easy to hack, so cover the camera with tape. Also check out clocks and smoke detectors in your room to make sure they don’t look odd or out of place.
What can you do to keep your internet and phone communications secure?
WE: All phone calls should be executed via cellular. Only use WiFi calling if you have a fully encrypted VPN tunnel. Only use the courtesy phone to contact hotel services, or as a last resort for local calls. Internet communications — either wired or wireless — should be conducted over a Full-Tunnel VPN. Use Apple Pay or a similar secure application whenever possible. In the event that you have to swipe your credit or debit card, make sure to give the card reader a good pull and wiggle to check for skimming devices. Also, never use a straight USB charger on an unfamiliar port. Either carry a USB power bank, your USB-to-wall-outlet adapter, or a charging cable “condom” for your device. The condom will allow you to plug your charging cable directly into a wall, alarm clock, or desk lamp USB socket and have power pass through to charge the device, but all data transfer will be disabled.
MD: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a first-time traveler or a veteran digital nomad — your devices and data are most vulnerable when you travel. Here are a couple things that I have learned after years of travel.
If you aren’t using a USB Condom, stop reading this article and go to Amazon and buy two. Don’t worry I’ll wait. It’s that important for a traveler, or anyone charging their phone in public. USB doesn’t just transmit power, it sends data as well. Remember that’s how you update your phone or transfer photos.
Of course a regular USB charging port isn’t designed to access your phone’s data. But there’s nothing stopping one from trying after you plug in a USB cable. A compromised charging port could access all the data on your phone or download a digital STD that could infect anything else you connect to. Bad news bears.
In the age of social media, it blows me away when people travel and tag exactly where and when they are at a location. Stop it. As a rule of thumb, always upload and post after you have left the location — or better yet, the next day. You don’t know who’s following you online or in real life.
Buy the data package for your phone and use that. Stay off WiFi in public places and in your hotel room. If you decide to use it, never make transactions or disclose sensitive data. Do you know what a WiFi Pineapple is? You should. This $99 portable device allows any amateur hacker to create a spoofed network that steals passwords and other information from anyone who connects.
Use a virtual private network (VPN) service at all times.