Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 1990
A gift as snug as a bug in a rug
The present 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 back."

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 divorce proceeding.

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 your head.

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 Iraq."

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 Florida.

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 telephone lines.

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 7-0."

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." home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth