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Spy cameras are popping up in Airbnb, VRBO rentals

Posted: 9:51 AM, Nov 15, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-15 16:51:44Z

Renting a home or condo for a vacation is more popular than ever, thanks to websites such as  Airbnb, VRBO, and  HomeAway.

Unfortunately, a growing number of those rentals are coming with an unwelcome surprise: hidden cameras that record your every move.

It’s happening more and more. Just last month, a British couple  found a hidden camera inside the alarm clock in their Toronto Airbnb rental.

Last fall, a couple on a Florida vacation found a camera hidden in a smoke detector in the bedroom of their Longboat Key condo.

They even found the footage it took of them, stored on a miniature hard drive. Why are spy cameras are showing up in more and more rentals?

Simple: It’s so easy for owners to do it.

A few years ago you needed expensive equipment and wires to hook up a miniature camera. Now you can get a tiny webcam for $50 or less on Amazon and hide it anywhere.

How to protect yourself

So we turned to an expert in finding hidden cameras, electrical engineer Brandon Schamer.

"It’s scary,” he said. “Owners can buy smoke detectors, alarm clocks, and so many other things with hidden cameras inside them."

Schamer said when he checks into a rental unit, one of the first things he does is look for and inspect:

  • Motion sensors
  • Smoke detectors
  • Alarm clocks
  • Wall clocks
  • Plug in air fresheners (especially if they don't give off any scent)
  • Stuffed animals
  • Books on a shelf (where a camera is embedded in the spine of a fake book)
  • Cooking canisters and spice racks

The good news is that Airbnb and VRBO (and its sister site, HomeAway) have rules about where cameras can be. The bad news: Not all owners follow those rules.

Airbnb specifically says on its site that it allows cameras in living rooms and common areas, but they must be disclosed in the rental agreement. Cameras are never allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms.

VRBO says cameras are never to be placed in an area where guests "can reasonably expect privacy."

If you find a motion detector in your bedroom, Schamer said, inspect it carefully. It should be in the entranceway or living room, not a bedroom, for starters. That’s a red flag right away.

If there is a smoke detector in your bedroom (which are typically required by fire code), look for a tiny hole in the middle, that is not a green blinking light. It could be a hidden camera.

How to check for hidden cameras

Shine your cell phone’s flashlight into any hole you find in the smoke detector, Schamer said. If the flashlight reflects, it may be a glass lens in there.

"If you get just the right angle,” he said, “you'll see it glint, right off the lens. That would be a reason to suspect something." 

At that point, you may want to open it carefully. (Don’t break it, because it may be a perfectly good smoke detector, and you will have to pay for the damage).

Some spy cameras, Schamer said, use infrared light, such as what a TV remote control uses. You can’t see RF or IR with your eye.

“You can buy an RF frequency detector,” Shamer said, “but that’s overkill, and can be expensive.”

Instead, he showed us how to scan the room using the selfie camera in your cell phone, which shows infrared radiation.

"It's totally invisible to the naked eye,” he said, “but should show up on your phone’s camera. Turn all the lights off and take your camera, and put it in selfie mode. Then scan the room and look for red glowing, or sometimes purple or blue glowing lights."

What if you find something?

Contact the owner and the site listing company immediately. If there is a spy camera, there may be more, so you may want to move out. If it wasn’t disclosed in the rental agreement, the owner has violated VRBO or Airbnb rules, and you should be entitled to a full refund.

That way you don’t waste your money.

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