Manufacturing & Technology and Technology

Internet sales of hidden 'nanny' cameras booming

November 28, 2009
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There’s nothing like a stout mix of fear and falling technology prices to whip up sales of hidden cameras.

Surveillance experts say sales of “nanny cams” are exploding, fueled by distrust and easy access to inexpensive, quality equipment from Web sites around the world.

Businesses are buying the tiny cameras to catch malfeasant employees or spy on competitors. Individuals are snapping them up to watch homes, children or suspected wayward spouses.

(For a closer look at the new surveillance technology, see the video below.)



“People do not trust people anymore,” said Helen Bowser, who, with her husband, Chris Bowser, owns The Protection Pros, an online retailer of surveillance equipment based in Morristown, east of Indianapolis.

Tim Wilcox, who owns International Investigators Inc., a private investigation firm in Indianapolis, said easy availability is merging with fears as old as humanity itself.

“People have always wanted to know,” Wilcox said. “Now they can do it.”

Hidden cameras have been around for decades. But even in recent years, cameras that take high-quality photos or videos were expensive.

Now, though, cameras that used to cost $2,000 are priced close to $500—within financial reach of many more people.

Dozens of Web sites have popped up offering nanny cams costing a couple of hundred dollars and up.

Bowser’s is one such site. Theprotectionpros.com sales of the cameras have shot up 75 percent since 2007.

They’re available plain-Jane or hidden in otherwise innocuous fixtures such as clocks, lamps, air purifiers, DVD players and Kleenex box holders.

Bowser’s customers, about half of whom place a phone call before ordering, are split fairly evenly between businesses and individuals.

Businesses mainly want to stop thefts, she said. Individuals want to monitor baby sitters, latchkey kids and spouses. Still other buyers put them in nursing homes if they suspect parents are being abused.

To some extent, customers are living the “trust, but verify” axiom, Bowser said: “They trust the baby sitter, but they want to be sure.”

Wilcox doubts most hidden cameras are bought for legitimate reasons, such as security. Rather, he said, the majority end up with voyeurs and other “nasty” people.

More than one such accusation has arisen locally in recent months.

In August, a lawsuit was filed against Van Natta Plastic Surgery and Meridian Plastic Surgery Center in Carmel by the owner of a spray-tan business operating within the center.

The owner, Pam Sanders, claimed to have discovered a hidden camera in a room where clients were sprayed in various levels of nudity.

The practice said the camera was installed to stop theft, but that it had been disconnected.

Last month in Muncie, a 66-year-old builder of high-end homes was arrested on charges of voyeurism after he allegedly installed a hidden camera in a customer’s bedroom door. The customer, a middle-age woman, noticed the camera and called police.

The builder, David E. Keller, said the installation was intended as a joke.

Charles Wackenhuth, technical support supervisor for Guardian Protection Services Inc., said anecdotal reports from field offices suggest fear is the greatest motivator for sales of hidden cameras.

Guardian, headquartered in the Pittsburgh suburb of Warrendale, has an office in Indianapolis.

“People are more concerned about their home and their belongings and their children,” Wackenhuth said. “Trust has fallen off with everybody, from friends to family.”

Businesses commonly buy the cameras to stop theft, Wackenhuth said. He is aware of at least one circumstance where a copper thief was caught on camera and nabbed.

Indeed, Wilcox, the private investigator, estimates at least half of retail stores have hidden cameras to catch thieves; the cameras are even more popular in bars, where they’re mounted over cash registers to catch bartenders who he says tend to be sticky-fingered.

The cameras are not often found in places where theft is less of a risk—accounting firms, consulting firms, original equipment manufacturers and companies dealing in raw materials.

However, even these kinds of firms invest in surveillance if sexual harassment is a problem, or if they believe they’re being burned by fake Worker’s Compensation claims.

Some buyers of hidden cameras are intent at getting at a truth, Wilcox said. If they confirm a spouse is cheating, they feel more settled about seeking a divorce, for example.

People familiar with the industry foresee little letup in demand for nanny cams.

Technology will become cheaper, better and more widely available. And distrust, fueled by crime shows and movies, may continue to increase.

“We’re turning into a more paranoid society,” Wilcox said.•

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