It’s been a long journey, and you’re ready to hang the “Do not disturb” sign on the door handle of your hotel room. The space seems good enough – a comfortable haven for you to lay back and unwind. But as you start to settle down, you get the sense that you’re being watched. And, horrifically, you may well be right. So, how can you find out for sure?
Well, the first step is to search your room. You check the bathroom, but nobody’s there. You open up the wardrobe, only to find just a few hangers. And after looking underneath the bed, you conclude that you’re just being paranoid. Still, though, you can’t shake the feeling.
So, you decide to lie down on the bed and try to forget about it. You’re probably just overtired, and all you need is to relax a little. You turn on the TV, then, and start running a bath. And after you’ve hopped into the tub, warm water soothing your body, you begin to calm down. But that’s when you notice it.
There’s a shelf hanging from the wall beside your television. It doesn’t seem particularly important, yet for some reason you can’t take your eyes off it. And your gaze is drawn to a black object – maybe a charger for a cellphone? On the surface, nothing about this item seems alarming, but you still feel that something’s wrong.
So, you decide to hop off your bed and approach the shelf. And the closer you get, the more obvious it becomes that this object is not, in fact, a phone charger. Even when you pick it up, you still don’t quite know what it actually is. Eventually, though, the penny drops: you’re holding a tiny camera.
This is a nightmarish scenario, but it’s one that more of us are beginning to dread. And it’s not beyond the realms of possibility, as technological advancements have led to increasingly sophisticated hidden cameras appearing on the market. Yep, we now live in a world where these devices are no longer merely the stuff of Cold War spy thrillers.
Think about how tiny your phone camera is, for instance! And it’s not totally paranoid to think that you’re being watched in public, as CCTV is all around our cities and towns. But hidden cameras in places we thought were private spaces is, for most of us, a step too far.
Concealed cameras could give away some of your most intimate secrets, after all. And you don’t just have to worry about someone placing a sneaky recording device in your home. There have been reports of such devices capturing footage of airplanes, medical clinics and – most appallingly – in restrooms.
Some argue that the usage of hidden camera technology is appropriate and justified in certain situations. It may, for instance, be helpful in protecting a business from falling victim to vandalism or theft. But there’s unfortunately little to stop a person with more sinister motives from using these cameras, too.
Worse still, it’s fairly simple for folks with bad intentions to get their hands on hidden cameras. And as these devices are so often cleverly concealed, it’s difficult to say for sure how widespread their usage really is. This is truly unsettling – especially when you consider how perfect the cameras are for shady activities.
There are plenty of devices that wouldn’t look out of place in your home, either. It’s easy as pie to purchase a camera masquerading as a picture frame, for example, or as an alarm clock. And this tech is a doddle to set up, meaning you don’t need to be all that computer-savvy to use it.
So, should you really be worried about hidden cameras in places that should be secure? Well, maybe. In 2019 NBC News ran a story about the disturbing experience of Florida woman Paige Blair, who claimed that she had discovered a clandestine recording device set up in her Airbnb.
During her stay, Blair apparently discovered two separate gadgets monitoring her activities inside the accommodation. She recalled to NBC News, “I turned to leave the kitchen, and there was a camera. Suddenly, every little tiny pinhole and every piece of sheetrock looked like a camera to me.”
Blair was understandably outraged by this invasion of her privacy and got in touch with Airbnb to lodge a complaint. And while the company ultimately provided her with a refund, she was still dismayed by the experience. Blair told NBC News, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, and frankly Airbnb doesn’t know, either.”
To get the other side of the story, NBC News reached out to the owner of the Airbnb property to seek a response. And this person – known only as Aaron – appeared to regret what had happened. He said, “I felt bad. I understand how she felt uneasy – being a single female traveling alone.”
The homeowner attempted to justify his cameras, however, by pointing to instances of forced entries in other properties. He also claimed that his recording technology was set up for the sake of his insurance policy. And perhaps in an attempt to put Blair’s mind at rest, Aaron alleged he wasn’t actually able to remotely view the footage that had been taken.
You could say that Aaron had a point, too, as folks who rent out their properties through Airbnb have a lot to lose. They may argue that hidden cameras keep the house safer, then, or act as an assurance that the people staying in the space don’t break any rules.
And these measures could be justified if the homeowner clearly informs their guests of any devices in advance. NBC News reported on an owner of an Airbnb property in New Orleans who displayed an information sheet mentioning that there were cameras in the place. Apparently, many of her patrons welcomed such a measure.
But even when cameras are freely acknowledged, there can still be problems. While Ned Mooslin was aware that his Airbnb rental housed recording devices, he ultimately discovered that one camera inside the kitchen was positioned to catch and fine guests who didn’t wash their crockery. Speaking to NBC News, Mooslin remarked, “It felt very oppressive – like every move was being watched and recorded.”
Cameras that are clear to see are unsettling enough, but the idea that there are discreet devices capturing all moments of your stay is downright frightening. Computer science professor Jeff Bigham knows this from personal experience after he found some hidden cameras in his Airbnb. Appalled by the situation, Bigham then wrote a blog post that drew attention on the internet.
In his blog entry, Bigham talked both of his own ordeal and of disturbing things that others have gone through. He said in 2019, “There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by Airbnb hosts. [For example], people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks in their bedrooms.”
And Bigham’s piece encourages readers to really ponder the levels of surveillance that we find acceptable in society today. He wrote, “All of us need to think carefully about how we will live in an increasingly surveilled world. Just because it’s so easy to record everything now, [it] doesn’t mean we should.”
But even if we’re constantly being tracked on CCTV, we shouldn’t have to feel as though our privacy is being invaded when we’re staying somewhere that isn’t our home. So, what measures are available to us to protect ourselves against this peril when we stay in a hotel or an Airbnb?
Well, luckily, we have some handy tips to share. Back in 2018, SmarterTravel Media’s managing editor Caroline Morse Teel got in touch with a veteran of the U.S. military who has specific experience in searching for devices of this nature. And this person – known only as “The Monk” – had some great insight on the matter.
The Monk explained, “There are essentially three primary methods for checking for a hidden camera: scanning of radio frequencies, lens detection and physical search. Many handheld devices that do RF scanning and lens detection are available on the commercial market, with most costing less than $100. However, no single method is going to be 100 percent accurate.”
What’s The Monk referring to when they talk about RF-scanning handheld devices? Well, these are instruments that pick up on signals given off by secret cameras. And, fortunately, you can actually buy this equipment pretty easily nowadays. That means we’re not totally defenseless against those seeking to invade our privacy!
Sadly, though, RF scanners are by no means a sure means of finding hidden cameras. The Monk explained to SmarterTravel, “RF scanning… will only help in identifying a device if that device is actively transmitting. If the data is transmitted only at intervals, then an RF scanner will be fairly useless.”
So, what of The Monk’s other tips? Well, lens detection can also be a useful measure in identifying a hidden camera. To do this, basically, you need to plunge the room into darkness before switching on a flashlight. Then look around the room using this light. If there’s a camera hidden away, then hopefully its lens will be reflected, and you’ll notice it.
The Monk told SmarterTravel, “Lens detection is very effective if used properly. But it requires patience and proper technique. If you are too far from the lens, sweep the room too quickly or are just standing at the wrong angle… then you’ll likely miss seeing the lens when it reflects the light from your own light source.”
And if you don’t find a camera but are still suspicious? Well, you’ll have to resort to active searching. This will be a tedious task – meaning that you’ll have to look through every nook and cranny. So many objects in the room could potentially be used to conceal a video recording device, after all.
The Monk has warned, though, that a proper scour of a room isn’t a flawless solution, either. He said, “Physical inspection can be the most thorough method. But this requires both patience and access that you may not have. If you can’t get away with prying open smoke detectors, opening the backs of paintings and possibly opening a section of a wall to see if anything is inside, then you won’t be able to complete a full and proper physical search.”
So, given that these cameras can be really difficult to find – even when you’re actively looking for them – you need to get clever. First off, you should think about where someone would realistically position a clandestine device. And when speaking to SmarterTravel, a hotel security expert named Jack Plaxe gave us all some hints.
Plaxe said, “Cameras typically need a clear view of the subject to get the best images. A visual scan of the room in key areas such as sleeping rooms [and] bathrooms… may reveal clues that lead to the discovery of covert devices. For example, an unusually positioned object in the room may warrant a closer inspection.”
The Monk also added their two cents, suggesting, “Bathrooms, bedrooms and office space [and] desks are very common targets. Areas where computer screens are going to be visible are especially sought after, as the camera may capture login passwords, bank account information, personal browsing habits and all sorts of other valuable information.”
But even if you know these tricks of the trade, there really is no guarantee that you’ll find a secret camera. If the person rigging the device is in any way technologically competent, then they’ll be able to set it up within the most mundane of objects. And this will ultimately make it really hard to track down.
If the camera’s located inside something humdrum like a power adapter, for instance, then there’s every chance it could be overlooked. This means you’ll need to keep an eye out for other signs that something is amiss in the room. And luckily for us all, The Monk has pointed out some of these potential clues.
The Monk said, “In hotel rooms, for example, if items continue to be placed in a particular location after a room is serviced, then that could be a sign that the item needs to be positioned that way so that a camera has a good angle of view. Of course, this could also just be the maid tidying up. So, don’t immediately jump to full paranoia.”
And knowing what to look for is a useful skill as more of us plump for Airbnb properties over traditional hotels. Hopefully, it’ll mean that we can keep our private lives away from prying eyes – or, rather, prying camera lenses.
So, next time you’re on vacation, remember The Monk’s three steps for locating secret cameras. None of these methods is completely reliable, of course. But taken together, they should at least increase our chances of finding a concealed device, and we’ll be in a better position than we otherwise would be.
The Monk concurred, saying, “When faced with these types of limitations, often it is best to utilize a hybrid of all three search methods to whatever extent you find possible. You may not be able to achieve 100 percent confidence that the space is clear of hidden devices. But you’ll be a lot closer than you were when you first walked into the room.”
And, horrendously, even everyday items can be used in sinister ways. For instance, you may not think there’s much cause for alarm if you spot an air freshener while using a public restroom. Yet a certain type of this household product isn’t being used to make the space smell nicer. In fact, it’s a smokescreen for something that is both very creepy and entirely illegal.
Of course, the devices themselves are entirely above board. They are sold by a whole host of reputable retailers, including Amazon. But they certainly aren’t designed to be put to work in such an intimate and private space. And yet there appears to be a growing trend for placing them in public toilets.
Yes, these particular air fresheners seem to have been popping up everywhere as of late. They appear to be especially popular on both sides of the Atlantic, too. In fact, several men have found themselves in trouble with the law for their misuse of the product in the U.K. and U.S.
So what exactly does this special kind of air freshener look like? Well, the worrying thing is it largely resembles the kind that you would see in any normal home. The device’s true purpose is designed to be covert, after all. But the nozzle that would typically emit a nice-smelling fragrance isn’t actually a nozzle at all.
Yes, if you happen to stumble upon an air freshener in a public restroom, there’s a way of discovering whether it’s the real thing. If you hold it up to the light, you might see that the hole where the nozzle is reflects that light. And that’s a clear sign that someone is up to no good.
Of course, the misuse of public restroom air fresheners isn’t the only growing criminal trend in the technological age. Cybercrime continues to be a particularly big concern. In fact, in an official 2019 report published by Cybersecurity Ventures, it was predicted that this form of crime would cost a whopping $6 trillion across the world within two years.
So what exactly does cybercrime consist of? Well, Cybersecurity Ventures’ founder Steve Morgan reeled off a list of examples in an official statement about the report. It included productivity loss, stolen financial and personal data, intellectual property theft, data damage and destruction and general business disruption, just to name a few.
And those behind such crimes are often much more intelligent than you’d expect. Appearing on the podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, expert in security Marc Goodman explained that many criminal organizations recruit from the most prestigious of places. He said, “The fact that narcos in Mexico are going to colleges of aeronautical engineering to hire drone engineers would be a surprise to people.”
Goodman continued, “Everything from AI to synthetic biology to robotics to big data to the Internet of Things, crooks and terrorists, rogue governments and corporations are all over it.” And one particular company that knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such intelligent criminals is Equifax. In 2017 the credit reporting agency suffered a major cyberattack that affected roughly 50 percent of Americans.
Yes, an astonishing 145 million U.S. citizens were caught up in the security breach. As a result, information relating to their driver’s license and social security was stolen. Incredibly, a basic security error was to blame. Had Equifax’s cybersecurity team simply installed the correct software patch, the data theft wouldn’t have been possible.
In a piece for Forbes magazine, cybersecurity expert John Wilson claimed that this rookie mistake proved that businesses weren’t taking cybercrime as seriously as they should. He also claimed that major corporations would continue to be targeted by such experienced hackers. So should the general public be concerned that their personal data is now at risk?
Well, according to Wilson, the horse has already bolted on that front. He wrote, “The truth is that with so many breaches occurring, the chances are that your data is already out there, and it’s never been more accessible. This means that each cumulative incident is making life easier for the cybercriminals. The more data they can access, the less work it is for attackers to build a comprehensive picture of their potential victims.”
But what exactly do these criminals hope to do with all this data? Wilson explained that with the right information “a criminal group could access someone’s credit cards or create new ones in their name, racking up debt and ruining their credit.” He also argued, “Hackers could use the large amounts of leaked medical information available to specifically target terminally ill victims. If the target passes away, there would be no way to check if the debts were legitimate.”
And it’s not just the average Joe who gets targeted, either. In 2017 New York Supreme Court Justice Lori Sattler was swindled out of at least $1 million thanks to a scam email. With the knowledge that Sattler was in negotiations for a new apartment, the fraudster managed to convince her into transferring the large sum to a bank account that was entirely fake.
So is there anything we can do to prevent such criminal activity? Well, according to Wilson, the answer appears to be: trust no one. He wrote, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is – especially if it’s in an email. This mindset, along with better awareness and training about criminal tactics, can go some way to lessening the chances of an attack.”
Unfortunately, data breaches aren’t the only things we have to worry about when it comes to technology being used for nefarious purposes. Sometimes, the most basic of gadgets can be used to invade our privacy away from the computer screens. Take the modern invention known as the air freshener spycam, for example.
Yes, as its name suggests, this particular air freshener isn’t designed to make a room smell nicer. Instead, it’s used as a covert surveillance tool thanks to the camera lens being disguised as a nozzle. And the majority can also be controlled remotely from a smartphone from anywhere across the globe if needed.
And that’s not all. The air freshener spy cam can usually notify users when there’s a detection of motion activity. As a result, those with access can view the footage as it happens as well as saving it to watch later. You don’t need to worry about its battery power running out, either. A fully-charged device can last for up to an entire month.
It’s all incredibly easy to set up, too. All users have to do is download the relevant spycam app and enter the WiFi details. Whether you place the air freshener in a study, hotel room or basement, you can watch any action that occurs unfold in real-time, no matter if you’re next door or on the other side of the globe!
So what are some of the less-questionable reasons for investing in one of these devices, which can retail at up to $200? Well, perhaps you’re a little concerned that your beloved pets aren’t being cared for in the way you’d hope whenever you have to go out of town? Or maybe you have the same concerns about any family members who also need looking after?
Perhaps you simply want a cheaper alternative to the more traditional security cameras for your home or your office? Sure, the masquerading air freshener might not deter criminals in the same way. But it’s more likely to give thieves a false sense of security and catch them in the act.
Or if you’re prone to getting into arguments that take forever to be resolved, or don’t get resolved at all, then maybe you want a quick-fix solution? Footage taken from the air freshener spy cam may well back up your version of events in a stalemate. Of course, just be wary that it could contradict your claims, too.
Mind you, there are some individuals who decide to take advantage of the hidden technology for more perverse reasons. Yes, while the majority of air freshener spycam buyers are no doubt law-abiding citizens, a certain number will have no qualms about abusing its functions. And public restrooms appear to be a popular haunt for these types of customers.
Yes, that’s right, public restrooms. In 2017 the head of security at a shopping center in Kent, England discovered an unusual sight when he entered one of his workplace’s toilet cubicles: an air freshener. Adedeji Adebanwo explained to news website The International Business Times, “Anything like that has to be approved by me and we don’t have air fresheners. It isn’t something we would have.”
Adebanwo instantly realized that the air freshener wasn’t intended to make the cubicle more fragrant. He added, “Straight away when I saw it I knew it was a hidden camera. Both adults and children use that toilet. It’s sick. If they are in the toilets at this shopping center then you don’t know where else they are being put.”
A spokesman for JLL, the company which manages the shopping center, stated, “The matter has been reported to the local police and we are helping them with their inquiries.” The culprit in this case was never discovered. But a year earlier, a man who’d staged a similar set-up was caught bang to rights.
In 2016 Martin Clough, an optician from Bolton in the north of England, was found guilty of voyeurism after a number of cameras were found hidden around the practice he owned. The then-55-year-old had placed them in various positions in order to film up his female patients’ skirts during their eye tests. And one was discovered in the women’s toilets disguised in an air freshener.
Clough got away with this perverse act for almost a year until a suspicious customer inspected the aforementioned air freshener device. To her horror, she realized that a camera had been placed inside. After police were alerted, Clough’s home was raided, as was the practice he managed alongside his siblings.
In the resulting court case, prosecutor Brian Berlyne explained exactly how Clough had been rumbled. He told the court, “[The customer] noticed something black inside the air freshener unit. She opened the unit and found a black camera and USB adapter in the unit. It was attached to the box by blu tac. She removed the camera and took it home. She plugged it in and found an image of Martin Clough installing the camera in the toilet.”
Clough had initially claimed that he’d installed the camera in the women’s toilets over concerns about thieving staff members. But he eventually pleaded guilty to six voyeurism charges. The optician was then given a prison sentence of nearly two-and-a-half years. In his summary, Judge Timothy Clayson explained why this punishment had been handed out.
Clayson told the guilty Clough, “You are an intelligent man. You knew that you had significant issues which if you wanted to indulge in would be an intrusion into the privacy of women who trusted you. This is an extensive breach of trust equal to recording them at their own homes.”
It’s not just a British problem, though. In 2019 Airbnb user Max Vest rented a two-bed apartment in Miami. But when he got there he discovered that two of the phone chargers in the property were actually disguised cameras. And while one of them was hidden under a big mirror, the other was placed below an air freshener.
Vest later told TV station NBC 6 how alarmed he had been at his unwanted discovery. He said, “It was shocking. I did not know what to think at first, I did not know if I was being watched live or if it was just being recorded, or what was going on there.”
Gainesville resident Vest doesn’t believe he’d been filmed during his brief stay at the apartment. But he still got in touch with the Miami police force to alert them to the voyeuristic act and was allegedly told that each device had dozens of files stored. Cops refused to give any further information out about the case but did reveal they were attempting to track down any other potential victims.
And in 2018 a man was jailed for 30 days after being found guilty of voyeurism while renting a cottage in Maine. Joseph J. McGrath had used a bathroom air freshener to conceal one of the several hidden cameras that were found at the property he was vacationing at with friends and family. The police were alerted when a fellow guest spotted the device.
McGrath, who hailed from the city of East Longmeadow in Massachusetts, was convicted on no fewer than ten counts of violation of privacy. He was subsequently sentenced to a month in prison. So what signs should we look out for to avoid being put in the same position as the victims of men such as Clough and McGrath?
Well, Tim Miller, who founded security company Lionheart International Services Group, knows all about the issue. And in 2018 he told TV station CBS 12 News, “If you don’t want to be victimized, pay attention to what’s going on around you, and when in doubt check it out.” The ex-Secret Service agent also gave specific advice when it came to public bathrooms.
Miller went on to add, “Start up and [look] down. I always look at vents and ceiling fixtures to think, ‘Is there anything unusual?’ Don’t hesitate to touch things, too, just to see. Cameras are very easily hidden but they’re also very easily identified if you’re looking… There’s all kinds of ways to conceal cameras; we call them pinhole cameras.”
Air fresheners were mentioned specifically by Miller, too. But there are plenty of other options on the market for voyeurs. Phone chargers, electrical outlets and water bottles, for example, can all be used to disguise spying devices. But those in the industry claim the majority who purchase such items aren’t doing so for the wrong reasons.
In a 2020 interview with website Inforum, The Spy Shop owner Don Fischer insisted that incidents such as Clough’s and McGrath’s are a rarity. He said, “We don’t have a bunch of bad people coming in buying our products all the time. People with bad morals just don’t care, and there’s no way of weeding those out.”