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An Urban Legend About Hotels Storing Personal Information
 on Magnetic Key Cards Continues to Float Around

By Jim Stafford, The Daily OklahomanMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 30, 2007 - As former director of state policy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Steve Buck traveled across the country almost on a weekly basis. He was in and out of a variety of hotels.

At checkout time, he dropped his magnetic hotel key off at the desk and made his way to his next destination without giving it a second thought.

The possibility that his personal information such as name, home address and credit card information might be contained on the magnetic strip on the back of the room key never crossed his mind.

"I left my key on the counter one time, and a colleague grabbed the key and said 'I'm going to destroy that,'" Buck said. "She didn't think I should even return it to the front desk."

The reason? An urban legend about hotels storing personal information on magnetic key cards that has been floating around for a couple of years.

The e-mail warning of the "dangers" of magnetic hotel room keys recently made its way back into some Oklahoma e-mail boxes.

Citing the "Pasadena Police Department" as the authority on the subject, the e-mail claims that hotels put customer credit card information, including card number and expiration date, on the magnetic strip on the back of the key card.

The e-mail said, in part: "An employee can take a hand full of cards home and using a scanning device, access the information onto a laptop computer and go shopping at your expense. The bottom line is: keep the cards, take them home with you or destroy them."

Officials within the hotel industry dismiss the e-mail as pure fearmongering, as does the "myth-buster" Web site, www.snopes.com.

"This hotel cardkey warning overlooks the plain fact that many hotel employees who have access to cardkey scanners already have the ability to look up all sorts of personal information about guests through their hotels' booking systems," Snopes said in a long post about the magnetic key card myth.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association went so far as to issue a statement responding to the urban legend. The statement said, in part:

"This data is normally a folio number or name to identify guests at point-of-sale terminals located throughout the hotel. These cards do not supply guests' personal information such as credit card numbers, home address or e-mail addresses."

Hotel guests should have no identity theft concerns because of the magnetic key card use, said Jim Barnard, general manager of the Atherton Hotel in Stillwater, an 81-room boutique hotel on the campus of Oklahoma State University.

"All that is on that magnetic strip is a check-out time and room number," Barnard said. "There is nothing on there that people should be worried about. If you lose a key and go to the front desk to get a new key, the (old) key dies. It's a pretty good system; we have finally done something right.

"We are glad when people give those back to us because they are worth about $1 apiece. Then they can be used again."

As for Buck, the frequent traveler, he never experienced any identity theft problems with hotel cards.

"I have never worried about that and have never had any reason to indicate my personal information has been accessed," Buck said. "I have heard of this myth before."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Daily Oklahoman

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