At first glance, they look like any other household product that would blend right in on almost any kitchen counter. A box of Pringles potato chips. A canister of Slim Jims. A tub of OxiClean.
But, take a closer look.
Closer. Now, even closer. If you get close enough and squint your eyes, you may notice that there's a little black dot on the packaging that looks slightly out of place. If you look even closer, you see that the black dot is actually a tiny hole.
On the Pringles container, the hole is hidden in the number 5 at the top of the can where it says "25% More!" If you study the plastic Clorox wipes container, you'll find it in a small blue box amid the writing "cleans & disinfects!" And, if you look closely in between the x and the i on the OxiClean stain-remover label, there it is! That tiny hole again.
But, these are not normal everyday household products with tiny holes in them.
They are hidden cameras manufactured by Florida-based Safety Technology and they are made to look like everyday household products. They are designed specifically to go unnoticed in your kitchen, living room, bedroom and even a baby nursery.
The video surveillance industry is booming as security cameras seem to be popping up almost everywhere. U.S. sales figures for home surveillance equipment are not available, but industry analyst Joe Freeman says the numbers are higher than ever before. He estimates that major retail outlets like Lowe's and Wal-Mart are seeing sales grow by about 50 percent each year.
It's part of a worldwide video bonanza as more and more cameras are planted in homes, businesses and even cities and towns to help solve crimes, prevent thefts and even fight terrorism.
A person who lives in London is caught on camera an average of 300 times each day, thanks to the more that 4 million security cameras in the United Kingdom today, according to published reports. And, Forbes Magazine reports that research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates worldwide sales of spy cams will approach $100 million this year and continue to rise annually for the next few years.
When Safety Technology founder Mike Gravette began selling his hidden cameras in 2002, he knew he was onto something when, almost immediately, he could hardly keep up with the demand.
His first model was a standard-looking goose-neck desk lamp outfitted with a tiny camera inside. It became an instant hit for buyers who wanted to catch someone in the act while they weren't home.
Gravette hired a small staff and, today, he has a catalogue of dozens of so-called "nanny cams" that can blend into any number of household surroundings — a tissue box for the living room, a hair dryer for the bathroom or perhaps a doll for a little girl's room.
Secret Cameras Aren't Cheap
Gravette sells his cameras to distributors around the country who then sell them at spy stores, flea markets, independent retail outlets and, of course, online. They can cost anywhere from $300 to $600 depending on whether they are wireless or have a power cord and whether they capture black and white or color video.
Among his most popular cameras are a black plastic tissue box, a small vanity mirror, a brown teddy bear and a box of Pampers baby wipes (the "natural aloe" kind) sold to nervous parents who want to keep tabs on their child's nanny.
Each camera is outfitted with a tiny battery-operated wireless camera inside that transmits video to a VCR (or other recording device) for several hours at a time. Depending on the product they are stashed in, the battery packs are usually hidden deep down in a separate compartment, so the actual product can be placed on top. So, if the intended video target grabs a tissue, a baby wipe or a few Pringles, the package will have some of the real thing on top.
Gravette doesn't have permission from the companies whose products he uses, but so far he's had few problems. Only one company has complained, but Gravette says he discontinued making hidden cameras with its product immediately.
In April 2005, The Sharper Image introduced a motion-activated security camcorder hidden in a generic-looking digital clock. Its Web site boasts that the clock "lets you see What Really Happened While You Were Away!" Today, company spokesperson Tersh Barber says "it's one of their more popular products."
Nicole Bishop, 24, of Dallas, knows firsthand how the clock camera from The Sharper Image can bust someone in the act.
On Camera, Then Behind Bars
In the summer of 2005, Bishop had grown suspicious that someone was breaking into her one-bedroom apartment while she was at work.
For two months, she came home repeatedly to lights left on that she swore she had turned off before leaving. But, the final straw for Bishop came when a UPS package was mysteriously left on her back porch, which was accessible only from inside her apartment — Bishop decided that was enough.
Fearing that her landlord, or perhaps a maintenance man, was breaking in, Bishop went to the mall and bought the hidden clock cam and set it up facing her front door.
When Bishop returned home from work, she downloaded the images from the camera onto her computer and to her horror the camera had captured an intruder. It was not her landlord or a maintenance man.
It was Shawn Rogers, 38, who lived nearby and had taken a liking to breaking into Bishop's apartment so he could put on her lingerie and pleasure himself while wearing it.
And it was all caught on tape thanks to Bishop's hidden clock cam.
Rogers is now serving an eight-year sentence for his crime and Bishop is thankful she spent nearly a couple of hundred dollars. Without the videotape, there may have been little legal case against Rogers.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said hidden cameras can help put the bad guys in jail.
"Prosecutors love this. It's a ready-made case. Here's somebody who comes in with the tape. It shows the crime happening. There's little the prosecutors have to do," Levenson said. "I think more cases are being brought when there is a video. It's an easier case for the prosecutors to bring when they have the evidence in hand."
In addition to the types of cameras Gravette sells to his distributors, he's also received special requests from customers who worry that introducing something new into their homes might blow their cover.
"One couple contacted us about installing a hidden camera in their son's baseball mitt to videotape a suspicious nanny. It worked well because we were able to put a mini-DVR in the mitt so it recorded right on the DVR," he said. Gravette wouldn't say whether the couple caught their nanny doing anything illegal.
Gravette says that he has also installed a tiny camera in a pair of tennis shoes sent by a man who had "really smelly feet" and that one woman sent him a lamp from her living room so he could put a camera in it.
"She wanted to videotape her husband without him knowing and feared that he would catch on if something new showed up in their house," Gravette said.
With the boom in all kinds of video surveillance equipment, Gravette says sales of his cameras have been going up consistently year after year. From 2005 to 2006, business was up 20 percent and this year he says sales are up even more.
So, bad guys take note: The next time you're up to no good in someone's home and you spot a can of Pringles or Slim Jims on the counter, smile, you could be on candid camera.