The stealing of hotel towels isn’t a big problem in the scheme of world problems, but it can be expensive for hotels. Sure, we have moral prohibitions against stealing — that’ll prevent most people from stealing the towels. Many hotels put their name or logo on the towels. That works as a reputational societal security system; most people don’t want their friends to see obviously stolen hotel towels in their bathrooms.
Sometimes, though, this has the opposite effect: making towels and other items into souvenirs of the hotel and thus more desirable to steal. It’s against the law to steal hotel towels, of course, but with the exception of large-scale thefts, the crime will never be prosecuted. (This might be different in third world countries. In 2010, someone was sentenced to three months in jail for stealing two towels from a Nigerian hotel.) The result is that more towels are stolen than hotels want. And for expensive resort hotels, those towels are expensive to replace.
The only thing left for hotels to do is take security into their own hands. One system that has become increasingly common is to set prices for towels and other items — this is particularly common with bathrobes — and charge the guest for them if they disappear from the rooms. This works with some things, but it’s too easy for the hotel to lose track of how many towels a guest has in his room, especially if piles of them are available at the pool.
A more recent system, still not widespread, is to embed washable RFID chips into the towels and track them that way. The one data point I have for this is an anonymous Hawaii hotel that claims they’ve reduced towel theft from 4,000 a month to 750, saving $16,000 in replacement costs monthly.
Assuming the RFID tags are relatively inexpensive and don’t wear out too quickly, that’s a pretty good security trade-off.