The rise of home rental services such as Airbnb has been swift in changing the way we holiday – but there’s a dark side that is only now coming to light. Several stories this year about holidaymakers finding hidden cameras in rental properties have raised questions about the safety of staying in a stranger’s home. The latest came to light on 28 November, when Jason Scott tweeted a picture of a camera hidden inside a motion detector that his unnamed colleague discovered in an Airbnb apartment.
The rise of home rental services such as Airbnb has been swift in changing the way we holiday – but there’s a dark side that is only now coming to light.
Several stories this year about holidaymakers finding hidden cameras in rental properties have raised questions about the safety of staying in a stranger’s home.
The latest came to light on 28 November, when Jason Scott tweeted a picture of a camera hidden inside a motion detector that his unnamed colleague discovered in an Airbnb apartment.
“In ‘oh, that’s a thing now’ news, a colleague of mine thought it odd that there was a single ‘motion detector’ in his Airbnb in the bedroom and voila, it’s an IP camera connected to the web,” he tweeted. “(He left at 3am, reported, host is suspended, colleague got refund.)”
Airbnb said in a statement that the host in question had been permanently banned and that it “supported our guests with a full refund and reimbursement for expenses incurred.”
The incident follows a similar story from October, when an Airbnb host was charged with “video voyeurism” after guests found a hidden camera in the bedroom of their holiday rental.
Derek Starnes, from Indiana, was staying with his wife at the condominium in Longboat Key, Florida, when he noticed something amiss with the smoke detector in the master bedroom.
He told ABC Action News that he noticed a black hole on the side of the device. Starnes, who works in tech, immediately realised there was something wrong; when he took the smoke detector down, he found a camera recording onto an SD card.
So should we all be checking for cameras in our holiday rentals now? And, if so, how?
“You have to be vigilant to the likelihood of possibility,” Keith Roberts, a technician for Advanced Sweeping, a company that detects bugs for individuals and businesses, tells The Independent. “There are some bad people in the world.”
He says the number of hidden cameras that Advanced Sweeping finds has increased over the last few years.
“Cameras and eavesdropping devices are much more prevalent these days. There used to be a select market, and you had to know someone to get hold of one. They’re much easier to purchase now – anyone can buy them off the shelf from Amazon or Ebay.”
Although Roberts suggests getting a professional company in to check if you want to be completely sure you’re not being recorded, there are some things a layman can do to check for cameras.
Look around you
“With cameras you should look for tiny holes, which is where the lens will be,” says Roberts. “Check common items: the back end of books, mirrors, light bulbs, house plants. Look in logical places; if someone was looking for information, they’d put a device in the lounge. If the person was a voyeur, they’d likely put a camera in the dressing down areas like the bathroom, shower room and bedroom.
“Check places that would give the best field of view and aren’t likely to be obstructed – often a camera would be high up, so whoever’s filming will gain as much as possible.”
Shine a torch
You don’t need to be Inspector Gadget to do a solid sweep for cameras – a humble torch, such as the one on your smartphone, will do the trick. “You can look for a lens with a torch and it’s 92 to 95 per cent accurate,” says Roberts. “Turn all the lights off and shine a torch slowly into every inch of the room – any camera lenses will reflect back the light.”
Check the mirror
Worried that the mirror might be two-way? There’s a very simple way to check. “The fingernail test is old but it still works,” says Roberts. “Put a fingernail up against the glass. In a real mirror, you can’t reach your finger in the reflection. But if you can touch your own finger in the reflection, that’s a problem. It’s a strong indication that it’s a two-way mirror.”
Invest in a detector
While companies like Advanced Sweeping spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on professional device detectors, it’s possible to buy cheaper versions. Roberts says, “There are professional lens hunters you can buy – the cheapest ones are around £40 to £50.” For real peace of mind, it could be worth investing in.
Scan for webcams
There are two main types of surveillance cameras – those that record onto an SD card and those that are connected to the internet. You can scan for webcams by connecting to the host’s Wi-Fi and using a free network scanner to find any internet-connected cameras. In response to Jason Scott’s most recent tale of camera spying, Dr Adam Glen tweeted: “Most hosts generally allow you access to their local network via wifi. Use @fingapp to scan the network for IP cameras. Not a full proof [sic] method of detection but can give an indication.”
If you do find something amiss (taking into account that the host might have legitimate security cameras outside the premises), unplug the internet router to ensure you’re not being watched. Finally, if you do find what you believe is a hidden camera, don’t just complain to the company you booked through – report it to the police.