How to spot hidden cameras in vacation rentals

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An investigated looked at spy cameras inside of vacation rentals and how you might be able to spot them before you get spotted.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — They come in all shapes and sizes: Spy cameras the size of your fingernail that are hidden inside key fobs, clothes hangers, or concealed in power outlets and USB chargers. 

The cost for the cameras varies from just over nine dollars upwards of $100 and can be bought at most any big box retailer, electronics store, or online.

Hidden cameras have been uncovered everywhere, from hotel rooms to doctors’ offices to school restrooms and even inside some of San Diego County’s more than 10,000 vacation rentals. 

But just how common are they and what can you do to spot them before they spot you? 

CBS 8 is Working for You to help you answer those tough questions.

How common are spy cameras inside vacation rentals?

Thomas Martin owns one of the top bug-sweeping companies in the nation. Martin runs his private investigations firm out of Newport Beach but covers the nation as well as San Diego.

As technology has advanced, the number of hidden cameras and surveillance devices has exploded.

Martin says that among his other services, his firm is hired to find cameras and other recording devices in businesses, hotel rooms, public places, private homes as well as inside vacation rentals.

“My firm gets about five to eight calls a day for bug sweeps,” said Martin. “These calls range from businesses that people are concerned about, to fears about cameras inside of their homes, hotel rooms, as well as vacation rentals.”

According to Martin’s research, nearly 20 out of every 100 homes have cameras inside. Out of that about 9 in every 100 vacation rentals have cameras inside of them, possibly recording your every move.

So just how easy is it to spot miniature recording devices in your vacation rental? 

The Test

To find out just how difficult it is to find some of these devices, CBS 8 put reporter and anchor Keristen Holmes to the test.

Our crews hid three miniature video cameras – one inside of a USB phone charger, another inside of a smoke alarm, and a third next to a television sound bar – inside a rental home and asked Holmes to try and spot them.

Following our test, we asked San Diego Private Investigator Bart Santos of Bulldog Investigations to provide some tips on what to look for and just how to spot the tiny cameras in your rental or home. 

The Tips

Private Investigator Santos said you don’t need any fancy equipment or electronic video wands to do basic checks for hidden cameras, you just need to know what to look for.

Santos said upon checking into any vacation rental or hotel, take a look at the obvious places first, such as heating and air conditioner vents. If no power cords lead up to the vents, or no red lights are beaming from them, then you are probably good.

Next up, take a close look at smoke detectors. 

“Of course, you don’t want to go destroying any smoke detectors in a house or apartment that you are renting, placing a little piece of tape over it won’t do any harm and can ease any anxiety over hidden cameras,” said Santos. 

Next tip, Santos suggests a quick sweep of the power outlets. Look at the covers and make sure a screw isn’t missing or an extra hole isn’t there. 

“I like to think of it in terms of the Secret Service and how agents detect counterfeit items, they do so by studying the real thing. That way they know when something doesn’t look right,” added Santos.

In the case of electrical outlets, televisions and phone chargers, Santos said to keep an eye out for something that looks like it doesn’t belong and use common sense. If nothing else, grab a piece of tape and cover anything you think could be a hidden camera.


A Dream Vacation Turns Into a Nightmare

Taking some minor precautions could make you feel better about your stay and ease any anxiety you may have about spy cameras inside your rental.

With advances in technology allowing for smaller and smaller cameras come more opportunities to overlook hidden spy cameras.

In recent years there has been an increase in reports from guests across the country who spot tiny cameras inside vacation rentals, oftentimes turning dream vacations into nightmares. 

That is what happened to one couple while vacationing in San Diego in 2018. During the third night of their stay at a Clairemont Mesa Airbnb, a man discovered a hidden camera inside the bedroom and two in the bathroom – one placed above the shower and another pointed at the toilet.

San Diego-based attorney, David Beavans, represented the couple in a 2019 lawsuit against the property owner. Beavans said his client, while horrified at the discovery of the hidden cameras, did all of the right things. 

“My client immediately did the right thing and contacted the police, something that everyone should do if they find what they believe is a camera inside of their vacation rental,” said Beavans.

“The police then followed him back to the rental unit and did their investigation, wrote their report, took their photos, and then filed a claim against the property owner,” added attorney Beavans.

It is an important first step needed to ensure that the scene and evidence are preserved and not tampered with. Contacting the police first also opens the door to criminal charges because California is one of a handful of states that requires that both parties consent to any recording, whether video or audio.

As for the second smart move that his client made after contacting the police, that was calling a civil attorney.

“That allowed my client to pursue civil remedies against the property owner for the trauma that he suffered by knowing that he was filmed with his boyfriend during intimate moments,” said Beavans. “Doing so allows him to get some sort of closure through the civil legal system.”

Beavans said the lawsuit has since settled for an undisclosed amount, a development that has allowed his client to take the first step toward healing, not an easy task considering the circumstances.

“The concern in cases such as these is that these images weren’t just being seen by one individual. The concern is that they were being sold outside to generate money. For my client, that means every time that somebody looks at him funny, every time that somebody looks at him differently, he wonders whether he’s been recognized,” said Beavans. “The trauma for a young man having to go through that is unimaginable to me.”

It is a trauma, however, that Beavans said happens throughout the country. Since filing the lawsuit he and his firm have consulted on numerous cases throughout the country.

And while the number of cases of secret recordings has increased over the years, Private Investigator Thomas Martin, whose firm specializes in anti-surveillance, told CBS 8 that it is important not to let paranoia or anxiety over hidden cameras ruin your vacation. 

“Let’s give credit where credit’s due,” said Martin, “Short-term rental companies have tried to address this. It’s important to remember that while about eight to nine percent of short-term rentals have some type of surveillance inside, the remaining 92 percent don’t.”

As for whether or not travelers should pack a wireless signal detector wand for their next vacation, Martin said no, that while they may offer some assurance the detectors are often unreliable. Instead, Martin suggests asking the property owner if they have conducted bug sweeps on their property. 

“If they can produce documents that show that they have done sweeps, all the better,” said Martin.

CBS 8 reached out to Airbnb and VRBO for comment. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for VRBO told CBS 8, “Surveillance devices capturing the inside of a property are never allowed in listings on our platform, and we have a strict, long-standing policy against surveillance devices that violate the privacy and security of our guests. Outside a property, devices such as external security cameras or smart doorbells are only allowed under specific rules, and the host must always disclose their presence.  Although these occurrences are rare, our trust and safety team actively investigates any complaints about bad actors and takes action accordingly, including permanently removing any host in violation of our policies.”

A spokesperson for Airbnb told CBS 8 that hidden cameras are extremely rare at their rentals and that devices in private areas of the home such as the bathroom and the bedroom are not allowed. Any hosts that do, such as the San Diego property owner at the center of the 2019 lawsuit, are immediately banned from the platform. 

CBS 8 also attempted to contact the property owner named in the lawsuit. They did not respond to a request for comment. San Diego Police was unable to confirm whether or not the property owner was arrested or cited.  

RELATED: South Bay school janitor charged with filming women in restrooms for seven years



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How to spot hidden cameras in vacation rentals

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