The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 1990
A gift as snug as
a bug in a rug
that keeps on spying, the ultimate choice for a hard-to-please paranoid
member of your family.
NEW YORK - It's that holiday time
of year again, when one's thoughts naturally turn to suspicions of theft,
assault and industrial espionage, not to mention the gnawing sense that
your phone is tapped.
Ed Sklar's got the gift for you.
"Perhaps you had some feeling, perception, inclination that your
wife is not being as faithful as you'd like her to be," said Sklar,
president of a Manhattan store called Spytech. "You bring her home a
teddy bear or a television set and you'll know for sure when you come
While you're away on business, that cuddly $1,200 stuffed animal or
that fancy $8,000 TV is secretly videotaping your spouse's infidelities.
Hard evidence doesn't come cheap. But just think of the payoff at that
Concerned that your employees are stealing you blind? Your competitor
is consistently underbidding you? Your kids are doing drugs? Your enemies
want to shoot you? The Iraqis are going to gas your neighborhood?
"It's not Hollywood," said Frank Jones, the owner of the Spy
Shop in Greenwich Village, another store specializing in surveillance
gadgetry that opened in the last year in New York. "Electronic
eavesdropping devices are relatively simple to acquire."
Unlike other retailers facing a bleak shopping season this year, the
purveyors of spy paraphernalia say their business can only go up as the
nation's mood grows more desperate and paranoid.
"Times like these, you need to protect yourself," said Bella
Wagner, a spokesman for Spytech, which is in the Empire State Building.
Both stores sell a few cheap gadgets for the curious customers who
inevitably come in off the street.
Concerned about burglaries? For $25, Spytech sells an electronic alarm
to hang on your hotel-room door. Both stores sell hollowed books or empty
cans of frozen juice or oven cleaner in which you can discreetly hide
valuables. "Can you imagine a burglar coming in and stealing a can of
furniture polish from you?" asked Jones.
Worried that somebody is aiming to kill your loved one? Buy him or her
a bulletproof T-shirt, only $550 at Spytech. Top it off with a bulletproof
baseball cap, which, for $150, will leave a hole in your wallet, not in
Letter-bomb detectors? They have them in stock. Paper shredders? No
problem. Infrared cameras and night-vision scopes? Coming right up.
More than just a little concerned about the Mideast tensions? Spytech
sells a basic gas mask for $39. "We've sold many dozens of gas masks
in the last few weeks," said Sklar. "They're thinking about
But those are mere stocking stuffers for people who have real valuables
to hide or steal.
"Half the people who come in here want to buy bugging
equipment," said Jones. "They want to bug their husbands or
their wives or their partner or whoever, the neighbor down the hall."
Both shops sell briefcases and purses that contain hidden microcassette
recorders - standard stuff in the spy business. The briefcases start at
$600 and the purses start at $500, more if you want a designer handbag.
Fear your briefcase getting stolen? The Spy Shop sells a leather model
for $1,495. But don't get too close if you're not invited - it's wired to
shriek a 125-decibel alarm and to emit 100,000 volts of shocking
retribution. "It's loaded for bear," said Jones.
Body recorders are always a popular holiday item. And politicians
concerned that their close associates are wearing a wire might consider a
detector the size of a cigarette pack that silently vibrates when it
senses a recording. Price: $900.
Be forewarned, the dealers say. Without a court order, federal law
prohibits the recording of any conversation without the knowledge of at
least one of the participants (in Pennsylvania, the law is stricter,
requiring all conversants to be made aware of the recording).
"We do advise the client when they come in of the legality,"
said Sklar, who previously was in the real estate investment business in
But sometimes - wink, wink - you can never tell how a device will be
used. For $200, Spytech sells a long-range microphone that resembles a
pair of headphones; its brochure states: "Listen to the birds up to
100 yards away."
"It's a gray area, the eavesdropping law," said Jones, a
retired New York city police officer who specialized in building and
installing wireless microphones. "It all boils down to intent."
Jones said he sold his most sophisticated equipment only to law
enforcement professionals. That includes what he says is the world's
smallest wireless microphone - about one-eighth-inch square. It is powered
by a radium battery and can transmit conversations up to one mile away for
one year. The price: $40,000.
But enough about offense; let's talk defense. Both shop owners gladly
will sell you countermeasures to detect hidden microphones and tapped
Spytech sells a basic telephone wiretap detector for $300 that lights
up when it hears a conversation being recorded.
If you are not sure you're being wiretapped, both retailers will sell
you phone and fax scramblers for about $600 and up.
If you believe somebody has hidden a microphone in your home or office
- and both experts say that about 20 percent of the cases they investigate
turn up some evidence of electronic surveillance - a bug sweeper may be
the answer. Prices start at $500.
Both dealers become very excited when they talk about video-recording
devices, which have shrunk because of the advent of fiber optics.
Both have installed pinhole camera lenses as small as one-sixteenth of
an inch in diameter in the most ordinary devices - boxes, files,
televisions, radios, clocks and boomboxes. Jones has even installed a lens
in the shaft of a car antenna, which can be manipulated by remote control
from the driver's seat.
Not all the high-tech gadgetry is directed at surveillance. Jones has
mounted a tiny radio receiver in a football helmet to allow a coach to
transmit instructions to a quarterback - even while a play is under way.
Jones calls the $495 device "Headcoach."
Jones said that several top college teams are using Headcoach. So are
the 8-year-olds in his neighborhood. "I coach Pop Warner football for
children," he said. "We've used it this year, and my team is
The radio's transmissions are encrypted to prevent the opposing team
from listening in. "It works very well," said Jones. "I'm
hoping to see one of these under every Christmas tree in America."