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

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.”

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.

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.

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