TODAY   |  December 06, 2012

Rossen Reports: New device can open hotel room locks

When you lock your hotel door, you assume both you and your belongings are safe, but thieves have developed a simple device that can unlock hotel doors in potentially millions of rooms. NBC’s Jeff Rossen investigates.

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>>> this morning on rossen reports, what insiders are calling a new security crisis at hotels nationwide. a breach that could leave you vulnerable during your next hotel stay. today jeff rossen is here with more on this. doesn't sound good.

>> no, it's not, affects a lot of us, of course. staying in hotels . when you lock your hotel door, you assume you're safe and your stuff is safe. think again. thieves have invented a simple device that can actually unlock doors in potentially millions of hotel rooms at some of the most popular chains. the hotel industry has known about this problem for months. so why haven't they fixed it?

>> this man is about to break into a hotel room . no kicking in the door, no fancy tools. instead, he's using this cheap homemade gadget to pop those electronic locks. and in just seconds he's in. we booked hotel rooms in new jersey where he did it again and again at this hyatt place .

>> the only difference is i'm putting this underneath, door's open.

>> we're in.

>> yep.

>> at this ramada and double tree hilton.

>> another hotel.

>> another chain.

>> same result.

>> this security flaw so alarming even hotel managers are stunned.

>> that's absolutely insane.

>> the man breaking into rooms is jim stickley, a security expert working with us. the device he's using is so small, thieves can hide it in a magic marker .

>> first thing you're going to do is plug --

>> reporter: and criminals are learning how to make it watching videos like this posted online.

>> do you have to be a computer wiz to build one of these?

>> no, just go online, you could do it in half an hour.

>> all thieves have to do is plug it in and acts like a master key . even bypassing the dead bolt giving criminals access while you sleep. these locks are some of the most common used in hotels worldwide. millions of rooms may be affected.

>> the moment i opened the door, i felt violated.

>> reporter: she was ripped off in houston. her laptop, her jewelry all stolen.

>> my heart just dropped. somebody had, you know, been in my space. somebody has been through my stuff.

>> reporter: police say it was this man, matthew cook who used the same kind of gadget at several hotels . now charged with felony theft, he pled not guilty. so what's being done? the hotel industry and the company that makes the locks have known about the problem since july. says it has broadly communicated available solutions, but five months later, we found this country inn and suites still in the dark. we showed the general manager.

>> were you aware of this problem?

>> no.

>> she says no one ever alerted her to the issue.

>> what are you going to say to them?

>> i want all my locks changed.

>> in a statement onity says safety is the highest priority and all customer requests for these solutions have already been fulfilled or are in the process of being fulfilled. onity has given some hotels a free plastic cap to cover the port. the industry says they work, but not our expert.

>> they're silly. they're basically a temporary fix at best.

>> can a criminal still get through that?

>> absolutely. takes a screwdriver and a minute.

>> onity is also offering to upgrade the locks for a price. but many hotels haven't done it yet.

>> we're working on a solution to it.

>> reporter: joe is president of the industry group representing hotels .

>> bottom line, the hotel industry has known about this problem for five months and while you and onity works out who's going to pay for what, doesn't that leave hotel guests vulnerable?

>> not really. because we have extra security in a lot of the hotels . we're really looking at this as a number one priority --

>> what about the hotels we visited? we were able to get in, why can't a criminal?

>> a criminal might be able to get in and -- but, you know, we really believe it's important for people to realize that they are secure in a hotel.

>> reporter: but are they? he says they've hired an independent company to figure out the best solution and that takes time.

>> months, weeks?

>> i can't tell you. i don't have a crystal ball .

>> but victims say that's not enough.

>> they need to fix these locks because if not, somebody's life could be in jeopardy.

>> we reached out to all of the hotels in our story, hyatt told us they have new security measures in place but wouldn't tell us what they are. the other hotels either referred us back to the industry group or did not respond at all. how do you protect yourself? experts say use the security chain on the door. and if you leave your room, keep your valuables in the safe, matt, or take them with you and don't keep anything in the room.

>> shocking how easy that is.

>> it's been a long time since they've known about this.