She didn’t smoke marijuana in her room, but this alarm is still going off

By | January 31st, 2017

Thao Le doesn’t smoke. So why is her hotel charging her a $250 “cleaning” fee — and for smoking marijuana, no less?

Le’s case is troubling on several levels, from the evidence-free conviction to the complicit behavior by her credit card company. It suggests hotels, aided by banks, have taken a page out of the car rental playbook, circa 2007, when the ding-and-dent scam was wildly profitable, and the only ones who stood up to it worked at this site.

Maybe it’s time to sound the alarm again, to help people like Le who are being ripped off.

I’m going to break with tradition and start this story with the conclusion: Le’s complaint ended in the “case dismissed” file, which is why I’m so steamed about it. I believe she doesn’t smoke, and certainly not weed, and that she’s been scammed. But there’s not much more I can do except write up this case as a warning.

When Le stayed at the Rita Suites in Las Vegas earlier this year, she thought it would be routine. She’s been a frequent guest at the property for the last decade and had no reason to expect otherwise.

But then the hotel presented her with a bill that included a $250 “cleaning” fee. It alleged she had smoked pot in her room.

“I have taken time to call and email,” she says. “I even went there in person three times to meet the manager to ask for evidence and reconsideration. The last time I went there, she said she didn’t have any paperwork with her anymore, and she could not do anything for me.”

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So Le disputed her charge with her Bank of America credit card. And here’s where it gets interesting. The card sided with the hotel and closed her case, forcing her to pay the $250. No appeals.

Unfortunately, Le’s options were limited.

Rita Suites is not associated with any chain, and the ownership records shows the property for sale at $16.5 million, this after changing corporate ownership only three years prior. Properties associated with a national brand are far more likely to allow clients the benefit of the doubt.

And doubt seems to be rife here. The hotel has ignored our emails, and nothing Le reported indicates that the charge is based on anything more than a housekeeper’s report. The lack of management records is likewise not convincing.

In contrast, Marriott, the hospitality chain, has for years barred smoking in guest rooms, and it trains its staff to recognize violations. At Marriott Vacations Worldwide, Corporate Vice President Ed Kinney says that even guests with an ownership stake face the cost of room repair, but only after escalating confirmation from housekeeping to site management.

Bank of America has not replied to questions on a cardholder’s right of appeal. Its endorsement of the hotel’s charge is less than convincing. Millions of hotel guests annually sign away sweeping rights, yet credit issuers typically ignore that when the charge is unsupported or unsupportable.

If a hotel’s unsupported $250 charge is not potential fraud, perhaps Bank of America might provide another definition. Le may have a right of appeal, either to the bank or to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

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If all else fails, Le could take the matter to small claims court. That’s always a throw of the dice. If the hotel does not, as Le was told, have any supporting records, it may have a hard time supporting the fine in this particular instance or relying on one employee’s sniff test. Le’s persistence in writing emails, as well as three successive visits, should establish that the issue here is reputation, and at present a criminal allegation, more than money.

What we can do is to tell the world that this problem is becoming far too common — and that it’s time to do something for the Le’s of the world. And also, to say “enough” to the Rita Suites of the world. Starting now.

Dan Church contributed to this story.

  • Jeff W.

    Odds are (pun intended) that someone smoked in a room, but just not her room. A “3” became an “8” or something else innocuous. But the attitude of the hotel was troubling and should be called out. Especially for someone who has stayed there frequently. Not sure if this is a non-smoking hotel. Most hotels are these days, but Las Vegas is an exception and you can find hotels there that allow smoking.

    Too bad you could not help her and this had to be dismissed.

    And while we direct our ire at the hotel, let us also call out Bank of America. There are plenty of credit cards out there and she should find another and cancel the BoA one. Why do business with a company that does not believe you?

  • Barthel

    Sue the hotel in small claims court and file a complaint against them with the state attorney general. File a complaint against Bank of America with the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Charlie Funk

    Perhaps the housekeeper mistook a six-legged “roach” for something else. In any event it’s time to switch to another credit card company. And I have flagged this hotel so that none of the 25+ sales agents in our travel agency will ever offer it to anyone.

  • moonshin

    i would refuse to pay the $250. I’d get another card and close the BOA one without paying the $250. when BOA reports negative credit info I would dispute it with the actual facts

  • David___1

    This scam is much harder to fight than contrived auto damage. A car rental company can take a picture of the “damage” (of course, it could be from a different car or a later rental), but there’s no way to capture the smell of smoke in a room as proof of guilt (or innocence). I can take pictures of a car at the beginning and end of a rental and fight false claims, but what can I do at a hotel? Take a “picture” of the smell in the room?!?!?

    Reading this brought back a memory from 3 or 4 years ago. I was on the second floor of a hotel in Nova Scotia and had the windows open. It was a beautiful day and I was on the ocean. Someone was smoking in front of the building on the first floor and the smell was coming in through the open windows. I shut them immediately because I had fears that the smell would linger and I’d be charged for “smoking” in the room. Sometimes life is just too bizarre.

  • Bill___A

    That would cause you a lot more than $250 worth of trouble and inconvenience.

  • Altosk

    Yet another reason not to use Bank of America. Cut up that card, pronto!

  • Rebecca

    She absolutely could have/can dispute(d) it with BofA. The thing is, you have 10 days upon receipt of the written results of any investigation INCLUDING the documents produced to show you owe it.

    What this means practically is that if the OP received nothing from BofA other than a letter saying she owes it, she’s good. She must WRITE to them requesting any evidence they use to make that determination and promptly dispute it. In my experience, if there’s no evidence and BofA receives her dispute, they’ll refund it at that point. The only reason she didn’t win is because BofA is out the money (which makes sense as this isn’t a brand hotel and is up for sale – not unusual behavior by either party).

    However, if BofA sent her any evidence, which I assume they did not as I’m sure it would be included here, she’s SOL.

    The key here is she has 10 days after the bank produces evidence in favor of the merchant. Assuming there is none, it’s really a formality. If she takes the time to write a couple letters, and I’d suggest pay certified mail for the first, she’ll get the $250 back. I’m speaking generally and this isn’t the big bank I worked for, but I’m 95% sure it actually is that simple.

    Note: Since the original dispute was lost, she’ll have to pay the $250 in the meantime to avoid interest, but it will appear as a credit on a future bill. Do NOT call and ask them about this. The likelihood you’ll get a phone rep that understands the actual regs AND is sympathetic is almost zero.

  • Bill___A

    Two recent smoke in room stories on Elliott. One, where the alleged perpetrator brought and disposed of butts in the room and got their money back. Another, this one, where the OP has stayed at the property multiple times, gets hit with this and no support. There needs to be a definitive test for this. Something needs to be put in the rooms that detects smoke and records when, how long, etc. In the case of “seeping” smoke, it would show up stronger in the rooms where it occurred. The takeaway for the hotel would be that they could realistically enforce no smoking (something I’ve seen not done well) and not have “false positives”.

  • Barthel

    It would take some time and letter writing, but it’s fun to fight the big boys.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    Why hotels don’ t install sensitive smoke detectors, the ones that go off immediately if someone lights up a cigarette? I know they are installed all over in Europe. Also, I think it comes to start recording our stays in Hotels, as a proof that as a guest we did not smoke in the room. Let’s beat them at their own game.

  • cscasi

    Somehow, I can just see everyone recording themselves for the 8-10 or so hours a day/night they are using the room. Does that mean one will also record themselves while they are in the bathroom as well as in the living part of the room? Got to remember to turn the camera on and off. Got to replace the batteries or keep the camera charged during the day or several days one is using the room. Nice thought, but somehow, would most people resort to that?

  • pauletteb

    Why is anyone still doing business with BoA? I dumped them years ago when they took over another CC company and then notified me that since I pay off my balance every month, they were going to charge me $39 for the “privilege” of using their card. The rep I spoke with to cancel the card says I was one of dozens of cancellations he had handled that day for the same reason.

  • michael anthony

    They’ve convicted her with no judge or jury. Contact the attorney General in Nevada and the media. It’s a scam.

  • PsyGuy

    I don’t see how the LW wins this, it’s not a lack of evidence. A housekeeper’s report is evidence. This is what happens. The LW goes to court says they didn’t do it the hotel admits the housekeeper’s report and maybe they testify. The hotel wins.

  • PsyGuy

    Just use the camera on your laptop, leave it plugged into the wall.

  • RightNow9435

    First she should keep persuing appeals with BoA. Failing that, sue or arbitrate it. Failing that, time to get a new credit card and stop dealing with BoA. In the meantime, small claims court with the hotel

  • Folks,

    It’s really time to take these type of complaints to either the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency at Treasury, and/or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t know which card you have. My wife has one and it is free of charge.

  • Bill___A

    I have better things to do with my time. However, I do like to make it cost them money. Delta is on year 20 of me avoiding business with them. Hampton by Hilton tried to charge me $5 extra for a non smoking room once. This has cost them several hundred thousand dollars in revenue over the years.

  • michael anthony

    A housekeepers report is not 100% evidence of guilt. Did housekeeper see the OP toss the trash in? Is the trash emptied more than once a day? And who is to say another worker deposited their own trash in said wastebasket? Unless witnessed, so called evidence can be destroyed. She’s a long standing customer, with no problems, and suddenly she’s going to toss pot in her trash? Dubious claim.

  • PsyGuy

    “I didn’t do it” is a self serving claim, that is not evidence of innocence either.

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