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Hotel Key Card Systems Explained

Hotel Key Card Systems Explained

Old Nov 23, 05, 12:50 pm
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Hotel Key Card Systems Explained

A recent thread raised the suspicion that hotel key cards are encoded with the guest's credit card information, and so should be taken home and shredded rather than returned to the hotel.

Drawing on my experience as a hotel manager in a previous career, I'd like to debunk this and offer a description of how these systems work.

Quite aside from anything else, theres no reason for the hotel to put your credit card info on a room key card. All it's used for is to open your room door, so why would they put your credit card info on it? Additionally, the key encoding machines are not connected to the hotel's computer system, so there's no way to get CC info onto it.

The only thing on the card key is a rotating code and a serial code of some sort to distinguish one key from another (i.e. two master keys will have the same key code but different serial codes.) When you check in, the clerk puts the key in an encoding machine that records onto it the next sequential code for the lock on your room. When you first enter your room the lock recognizes that the next sequential code is being used and instantly invalidates the previous key. That explains why if you get a second key later for someone else, it often messes up your key - the clerk coded a new key rather than a duplicate. The sequence change means that the previous guest can no longer get into the room.

This is an extremely secure system. If a master key goes missing, it's a relatively trivial procedure to rekey the entire hotel. When I worked at the Aerostar Hotel in Moscow in the early 90's, we once rekeyed all 413 rooms in an emergency (lost master keys are taken seriously) overnight, while the guests slept. The security supervisor went through on a routine floor patrol and at each room he slipped in a change key, then the new master key. The lock recogized the next code in the master key sequence and invalidated the old master key. End of story. All the master keys were recoded and security was maintained. We also if I recall instituted a policy that we would rekey the hotel periodically even if no keys were lost.

The locks by the way are not wired into any system, they have batteries in them. They have several key sequences programmed into them, guest key, maids key, supervisors key, master key, emergency key. The emergency key is unique in that it will release the deadbolt, necessary in a fire or medical emergency. The lock also has a memory that remembers the time, date and key code for every entry. In the event of a problem the security staff just needs to read and print the log to see who entered the room at what time.

With the advent of these key systems, room thefts in hotels are almost unheard of.

I should add that I've read the snopes.com article on this issue, and while it indicates that the problem has been resolved in the few places it was found, I can only imagine that someone along the way misunderstood the problem. Not only would it be difficult or impossible to put the info on the card, I can't fathom any reason that a hotel would want to. They already have the info in the reservation and billling system, which is where it is needed, and a key card is only used to open a room door. What possible reason could there be to put credit card info on it?

Hope that clarifies things and puts some minds at rest!
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Last edited by Foreign Affair; Nov 23, 05 at 1:08 pm
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Old Nov 23, 05, 1:57 pm
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Originally Posted by Foreign Affair
Hope that clarifies things and puts some minds at rest!
Since I'm the one who brought it up, I appreciate your taking the time to answer the question. I'll admit; I'm still going to take the key home and shred it. I've been doing that for years and anything with a magnetic strip just makes me concerned about theft. Accurate or not, it's what I do.

Someone made this suggestion on that particular thread which I thought was a good idea. Would they make up the card keys prior to my handing over my credit card so I feel more secure with the card key?
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Old Nov 23, 05, 3:07 pm
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Originally Posted by Analise
Someone made this suggestion on that particular thread which I thought was a good idea. Would they make up the card keys prior to my handing over my credit card so I feel more secure with the card key?
Can't hurt, so if it makes you more comfortable, why not?
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Old Nov 23, 05, 5:57 pm
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Thanks for the informative post.

I'm not at all concerned about hotel keycards having my personal info on them. Especially not my credit card -- I do what I can to protect my card, but if someone devises an elaborate scheme to steal it, that's that. Worst case, I'm out $50 and slightly hassled.

Originally Posted by Analise
Someone made this suggestion on that particular thread which I thought was a good idea. Would they make up the card keys prior to my handing over my credit card so I feel more secure with the card key?
But don't you typically have to give your credit card info over to the hotel at the time of booking?
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Old Nov 23, 05, 10:00 pm
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When that rumor about the key cards having credit card info went around the internet for the first time a few years back, it was attributed to someone at the Pasadena, California, police force. I called that person's office -- turned out it was a real person -- and eventually got to someone who explained the strange sequence of mistaken events that led to the rumor getting around. They also made it very clear that there was nothing behind the statement, it was totally false.

So I was actually able to find the originator of the myth and get it debunked right at the source. It's been a while, and I don't remember the specifics, but I sure remember doing it!
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Old Nov 23, 05, 10:21 pm
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I remember reading on one of these DIY sites (, that some people built a card reader, and they were able to get CC information off of the Hotel cards. My guess is that this is with Hotels that allow you to use your keycard to purchase items.
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Old Nov 23, 05, 10:22 pm
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This idea is new to me. I have never heard about the theory that hotel keys had personal info on them.

But after thinking about it ( for a few seconds), I realize that I have had keys made/replaced/changed
/moved rooms/duplicated etc and after watching how they do it, with no communication with a computer system and
with 30 years in the communication/computer business
can't imagine why anyone would believe in this conspiracy theory.
They certainly have better ways to get you; so if you like
to shred cards go for it. It's not a major expense to hotels.
I simply forget to return them and them just toss them.
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Old Nov 23, 05, 10:26 pm
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I found it. It was in MAKE Magazine, here is a shortend version of the article from thier blog.
http://www.makezine.com/01/magstripe/
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Old Nov 23, 05, 10:38 pm
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There has been talk at various times about using credit cards to not only open the door, but check you in at the same time. There are systems to open gun safes and other doors with a credit card. Would that be cool? But I suppose it's sort of off topic for this thread . . .
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Old Nov 24, 05, 12:29 am
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Originally Posted by GopherPuckGuy
There has been talk at various times about using credit cards to not only open the door, but check you in at the same time. There are systems to open gun safes and other doors with a credit card. Would that be cool? But I suppose it's sort of off topic for this thread . . .
Kind of OT, but what the heck. I have seen hotel room safes that use a credit card as a key. For those (and those alone) I carry an expired / cancelled card in my wallet. Reason being, they're more likey targets for modding by adding a skimmer.
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Old Nov 24, 05, 12:35 am
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I had extensive water damage in a hotel room and the security manager was able to print out the key log to verify that neither we nor any employee entered the hotel room during the period when the damage occurred. No one ever figured out how it did occur (none of the surrounding or above rooms were wet), but we ruled out either one of us guests leaving the water running or an employee doing the same.

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Old Nov 24, 05, 8:27 am
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I'm not worried about personal information, but if there is no connection from the door reader to a central computer, how would they print out the history of who's keys were used? Plug a computer/printer directly into the door? It also seems that a predetermined sequence of codes could be subjet to theft - especially to the programmers who created the computer - kind of like the ones who programmed slot machines to pay out if the correct sequence of "inputs" occured.

I also had an issue several years ago where I could not get back in my room late one night. Went to the front desk and they gave me a new keycard. Once I got back to my room I had a voice message from the front desk that my company credit card had been declined and could I please come to the desk to resolve it. I always assumed they intentionally disabled my key so I would have to go to the desk, but the night clerk did not realize it. Would they have done this?
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Old Nov 24, 05, 10:41 am
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Yes, they plug a device directly into the door, I've seen it done.
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Old Nov 24, 05, 11:11 am
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Originally Posted by Foreign Affair
The emergency key is unique in that it will release the deadbolt, necessary in a fire or medical emergency.
I assume this is the deadbolt that is directly on the doorhandle area.

What does a hotel do in the case of an emergency with the other safety bolt? I don't know the exact name for it but it is usually higher on the door. You swing it towards the door and if the door is opened, it catches a little latch on the door itself and keeps the door from only opening an inch or two.

Since that appears to be purely mechanical, how does a hotel undo that in order to open the door?
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Old Nov 24, 05, 11:19 am
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Originally Posted by FLOIR
Since that appears to be purely mechanical, how does a hotel undo that in order to open the door?
Battering ram??
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