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Next time you’re using a public restroom, it’s probably a good idea to pay close attention to the clothes hooks inside cubicles. That’s because these seemingly innocuous objects are now part of a shocking trend emerging in toilets around the world. In fact, if you spot one in person, you’ll want to get out of there as quickly as possible – and immediately alert the authorities.

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Now, you may think such a warning is exaggerated nonsense. Of course, clothes hooks don’t inherently suggest anything unusual is going on. And the everyday item is perfect for allowing bathroom patrons to hang their coats and bags. Nowadays, though, those apparently harmless hooks may signal something sinister – and it’s very difficult to tell the difference at first glance.

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That’s because the hooks in question essentially look identical to those you’d find anywhere else. And furthermore, that makes them particularly hard to spot – but they’ve nevertheless turned up in three different women’s restrooms across the Florida Keys. As a result, authorities are urging people to be vigilant, and immediately report any instances of these potentially dangerous items.

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Because there’s nothing noticeably untoward about the hooks, you’d probably never know that someone was using one to commit a crime. But of course, this isn’t the first instance of wrongdoers preying on unsuspecting folks in what should be private or discrete settings. In fact, it’s just the latest in a list of means by which criminals have taken advantage of their unknowing victims.

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For example, ATMs have proven to be a real hotspot for hidden crime. While most machines warn users to shield their Personal Identification Number (PIN), that may not be enough to deter savvy thieves. You see, the methods these criminals employ to steal users’ data have become increasingly nefarious in recent years.

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One such technique involves using a counterfeit card reader, which can harvest information from a card simply by reading its magnetic stripe. Meanwhile, it’s also worth looking out for hidden cameras, which are usually planted inside ostensibly harmless objects. These are often easier to spot, because there should be no clutter around the machine – so even something as simple as a leaflet holder should raise alarms.

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If you do spot anything suspicious at an ATM, you can either contact the bank directly, or call the number printed on the machine. And it pays to be cautious, because those hidden cameras could easily record not just your PIN, but your card info, too. These details can then be used by felons to clone your bank card.

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However, that’s not all you need to look out for. When you arrive at the ATM, inspect the slot that dispenses receipts. If there are any cracks or signs of foul play, back away quickly. The slightest indication that anything has been removed or reassembled is a major red flag, because someone may have inserted a card scanner inside the machine.

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Furthermore, almost every element of an ATM is open to tampering. For instance, fake keypads can be used to record and transmit your PIN in real time. And even if you do eventually realize what’s happened, it could well be too late. Keep an eye out for keypads that feel strangely spongey, or simply looser than a normal ATM keypad.

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What’s more, phony card slots are often used by criminals to collect cards, too. A card slot jutting out from the machine, rather than sitting flush against it, is a telltale sign that it’s fake. If your bank card is swallowed by the machine, contact the bank, and remain with the ATM if possible.

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Hijacking an ATM isn’t the only means by which fraudsters can get their hands on your card details, though. Indeed, there are plenty of other ways for unscrupulous folks to skim your info – particularly if your card leaves your sight. For example, if you hand your card to a waiter, they may be able to lift your credit card data using a handheld device – and without you ever noticing.

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In stealing your card’s data, these crafty counterfeiters are hoping to create a clone version with an identical magnetic strip. Between that and your PIN, the thief will then have everything they need to access your cash. But while this type of fraud is certainly a problem for consumers, the number of cases in the United States is beginning to slow down.

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Yes, between September 2015 and March 2018, money lost through the use of cloned cards fell by 46 percent across every merchant in the country, according to Visa. For U.S. retailers who use chip-enabled payments, which are specifically designed to counter cloned cards, there was a whopping 75 percent drop. Those numbers could change, however, as contactless technology becomes ever more prominent in the States.

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You see, contactless technology currently accounts for over 90 percent of point-of-sale transactions in Australia, and more than half of the same in Canada and the United Kingdom. However, the tap-and-go system is only just beginning to take off in America. As of 2019, a mere 0.18 percent of in-person purchases were made using a contactless card.

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But the landscape of consumer payments is beginning to change. The majority of merchants are set up to accept contactless cards – and even mobile payments, including Google Pay and Apple Pay, because the technology required is identical. And as the ability to use the cards grows more widespread, banks are beginning to send out more contactless cards. All that’s left, then, is for American consumers to embrace contactless.

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When they do, though, they may find that they’re opening themselves up to a completely new means of credit and debit card fraud. You see, thieves can reportedly swipe data from your contactless card without it ever leaving your pocket. Cheap card-reading devices can allegedly lift information and even cash, simply by being in close proximity.

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While contactless credit card fraud isn’t a huge problem in countries where the technology is more widespread, it is a growing concern. For instance, in the United Kingdom contactless cases account for around three percent of card fraud. In 2018 that amounted to 2,740 separate incidents, with financial losses totaling almost $2.25 million. And one particularly eye-watering case saw a loss of nearly $500,000.

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Despite those alarming figures, every one of those cases involved the thief swiping their victim’s card. While the technology to lift data remotely supposedly exists, then, its use has seemingly never been verified. That may be because in order to receive a payment from your card in passing, a thief would need a business account, and a registered means of taking payments.

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Now, that would make them incredibly easy to trace. So it’s little wonder most contactless fraud involves the more traditional method of stealing your card before tapping away. Perhaps the most important rule to remember with card fraud, and indeed all ATM scams, is that you may never know it’s happened. Therefore, it’s a good idea to periodically check your accounts for suspicious activity.

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Even if you do find yourself the victim of card fraud, you’ll generally be compensated by your bank. Unfortunately, you’re not as well-protected when it comes to the mysterious hooks that have been appearing in women’s restrooms. And that’s because these innocent items actually contain hidden cameras. Yes, they allow the owner to spy on you in the bathroom – and you’ll never know it’s happened.

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Indeed, unless you knew what you were looking for, you’d never notice these hooks were concealing a hidden camera. There’s no obvious giveaway, which is apparently an intentional design trait, because the hooks are marketed as home security devices. And in that context, they make sense – but conniving criminals have now found an alternative use for them.

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Alarmingly, absolutely anybody can simply order the hooks online – and they’re hardly expensive. Indeed, they’re currently available on Amazon, for instance, for as little as $15.45. So there’s no real financial or practical barrier to acquiring these potentially invasive implements. And that means anyone could feasibly install one in a public restroom.

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You see, the hooks in question have tiny, almost indistinguishable holes at the top. At first glance, they appear to be simply part of the design – but they’re actually tiny cameras. What’s more, the hooks can essentially be mounted anywhere. For instance, they could be placed inside restroom stalls, inside vents, next to sinks, or even among other existing coat hooks.

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Private investigator Carrie Kerskie told NBC in 2016, “Nowadays, with the advances in technology, all you need to do is insert a MicroSD card. The battery life for these coat hooks, I looked it up, is two hours. Then, you just take it out, pop it in the computer, and you have all your images. It’s real simple and easy. They just walk in, hang it up, walk out, go back a few hours later and take it off.”

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Meanwhile, local police have advised business owners to be vigilant. “Anyone who has a public restroom on their property needs to check them closely,” the Florida Keys sheriff said in 2016. “If you find anything suspicious you think might contain a hidden camera, don’t touch it. Call us right away and we will respond. Keep in mind, though, that these are very small cameras that can be mounted in many locations and hidden in many seemingly every-day items.”

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According to Kerskie, you can protect yourself from these invasive hooks using devices such as the Spy Finder. The tool works by using a beam that highlights hidden cameras with a red dot. “If it’s a camera, that red dot is going to stay in the same place,” the PI told NBC. “The size of a camera lens can be the [size] of a period at the end of a sentence – that’s how small they make them these days.”

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While these devices do exist, though, they’re not cheap. At the moment, the Spy Finder is selling for almost $250 on Amazon, plus shipping. That’s incredibly expensive compared to the small price of the hooks. But if you’re worried about the prevalence of hidden cameras, it could be a worthwhile investment.

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Indeed, Kerskie particularly advocates taking the plunge if you’re part of the demographic targeted by these hidden cameras. “I do recommend it if you’re a woman and you’re living alone or even a girl in college dorms,” she said. “They have been found in those places.” And she also advised business owners to do their own due diligence.

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“If you own an establishment with a dressing room or public restrooms, it’s a good idea to go in there periodically and check yourself,” Kerskie told NBC, stating that business owners need to protect themselves, too. “That way, you’re not the one who is on the six o’clock news saying there was a camera found in your establishment.”

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While there are apps that claim to be able to detect hidden cameras, they can be unreliable. According to Kerskie, the apps – most of which sell for around $5 – sometimes result in false positives. That’s because they often work from radio frequency signals, and can therefore mistakenly identify anything else on the same frequency as a hidden camera. That could be any kind of wireless device, or even just a Wi-Fi signal.

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It’s also worth remembering that hooks aren’t the only means by which people can install hidden cameras in public places. After all, spy cameras come in all shapes and sizes – some as small as a coin. The magnetic Ehomful mini spy camera, for example, packs night vision and motion detection into a tiny one-inch device.

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The Ehomful camera’s night vision allows it to clearly capture subjects as much as 20 feet away. Its motion detector, meanwhile, alerts the camera’s owner to people in its vicinity, transmitting live photos and video clips. And because it can be linked to a Wi-Fi network, they only need an internet connection to access any footage it has recorded.

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But it’s not the only hidden camera with remote access. The same functionality is offered by the JMP Power wireless camera, which is masked inside a digital clock. Another company’s camera bundles the same features, including motion detection and night vision, into a security camera that’s also waterproof. Most importantly, these cameras are not only simple to use, but cheap to procure, too.

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While these kinds of tiny cameras may once have been the preserve of science-fiction, industrial innovation has made them accessible by anyone. Video security camera expert Randy Andrews told Forbes in January 2020, “The technology has gotten much, much smaller. We’re talking about a micro camera lens the size of a pinhead.”

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So it’s probably no surprise that these hooks aren’t the only hidden cameras to be strategically placed inside public restrooms. For instance, in December 2019 a man was arrested in San Jose for allegedly installing a pair of cameras in a Starbucks bathroom. Thirty-seven-year-old Shawn Evans was reportedly found outside the building with evidence that linked him to the hidden cameras.

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Around 18 months prior, another camera was found at a Starbucks restroom in Alpharetta, Georgia. And that incident came just one month after a device was discovered taped to a baby changing station in the very same coffee shop. The hidden camera, which was pointed directly at a toilet, had recorded roughly an hour of footage by the time it was found.

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At the time, a police spokesperson shared advice on how customers could protect themselves from hidden cameras. “Always be aware of your surroundings,” Officer Howard Miller told FOX 5 in 2018. “If you’re in a restroom that’s not yours, be sure you look around and check hidden areas that aren’t very visible. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening more often than you would think.”

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As hidden cameras become more widely available, they’re turning up in more and more places. For instance, in 2019 alone unwitting victims turned up spycams in Airbnbs, hotels and hostels from Sydney to San Francisco. And in South Korea, an entire crime ring was found to be filming and even live-streaming more than 1,600 motel lodgers.

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If you’re worried about hidden cameras but don’t have access to a device that can detect them, there are still steps you can take. For instance, it’s worth keeping an eye out for unusual objects in a room. Removing their battery backing or searching for their make and model online should reveal whether they’re concealing a camera.

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According to Michigan State Police detective Kenneth Weismiller, the most important thing you can do is be aware of your surroundings. “Remain vigilant and act on those instincts,” he told the Detroit Free Press in December 2019. “If those hairs on the back of your neck are sticking up and something doesn’t seem right, check it out.”

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