I-TEAM: Spotting hidden cameras & the tools that help sniff them out

Investigators tell News4JAX that cases of people’s privacy being invaded is happening more frequently and some may never know they’ve been recorded, while others may find out when they see their intimate photos or videos shared online.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – ‘Tis the season for traveling, but something not at the top of most people’s travel check list: checking for hidden cameras inside their hotel room or Airbnb.

Investigators tell News4JAX that cases of people’s privacy being invaded is happening more frequently and some may never know they’ve been recorded, while others may find out when they see their intimate photos or videos shared online.

In a case just a couple of months ago, the Flagler County sheriff tells us a woman was vacationing at her grandmother’s condo when she found a hidden camera in a flowerpot in the master bedroom. She reported it to deputies, and Sheriff Rick Staly says when they viewed the video, the suspect caught himself on camera. Staly says it was the condo’s homeowners’ association president!

After the initial arrest of the HOA president, 59-year-old Robert Orr, Staly says he was slapped with additional felony charges when it was discovered additional victims had been recorded in the same condo.

FULL STORY | Flagler County condo association president accused of video voyeurism arrested 2nd time

Staly joined us on “The Morning Show” on Thursday to discuss more about Orr and how to spot hidden cameras. He said to find secret cameras, unfortunately, you have to “think like a pervert.” (Press play below to watch Staly’s full interview)

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, whose department arrested a condo homeowner’s association president recently on video voyeurism charges, discusses the dangers of secret cameras and how to find them.

The I-TEAM wanted to know: how easy are secret cams to spot, and are there tools out there to help you detect them?

Hidden cameras available online

The I-TEAM shopped on Amazon to see the kinds of hidden cameras available and how much they would cost. We purchased a total of five cams:

2 detection devices we bought and tested.

Hidden camera detectors available online

When you search online, you will see there are a lot of options available if you are looking to buy a hidden camera detector. We’ve never used one before, so we decided to buy two different ones to try – a less expensive device and one that cost a bit more:

Setup for our secret camera test

To conduct our secret camera test, we did several things:

  1. We got permission from the owner of an Airbnb in Jacksonville Beach to allow us to use the rental for our experiment.
  2. We asked Sean Mulholland — who is a retired NYPD sergeant and the president and founder of Mulholland Investigation in Jacksonville — to offer his expertise during our test.
  3. We didn’t allow News4JAX anchor Joy Purdy to join us at the Airbnb until all the cameras were hidden (it took us about two hours to set everything up).

Joy Purdy put to the test

Joy finds the camera in the book.

Other than the fact that Joy Purdy knew we were hiding cameras, she had no idea the kinds of cams we purchased or how many. Her task was to walk through three-story townhouse to see how many she could spot with her own eyes, and then go back through the home to see if the two detectors we purchased would find them.

“You should be looking for things that are out of the norm,” Sean told Joy during her search. “Are there two alarm clocks in this bedroom? That’s odd. Is there a smoke detector in a bathroom? That’s odd.”

Joy spotted the home security “bulb” camera almost immediately on the first floor. During our setup, we had removed a flood light in the living room and replaced it with the camera.

Joy spotting the security cam bulb.

Joy said it was easy to spot because it was different than the other flood light in the ceiling and it looked like a home security cam.

Joy made her way room by room and floor by floor with Sean. She was able to spot a second hidden camera inside a plant we placed on the ledge near a skylight in the master bathroom on the third floor.

“Looking in the shower, I don’t see anything unusual. Oh! I do see something inside that plant way up there,” Joy said to Sean.

“Do you see the little black (spot)? Do you see that?” Joy asked.

“Yeah, I saw a green light in there too,” he answered.

“Did you? Oh! I see the light now!” exclaimed Joy. “Everything in here is black and white, and everything blends in together, except for that pop of green, so that’s what caught my eye.”

Joy finding the plant cam.

During our setup, we put one of the mini spy cameras we bought inside a fake plant. We then crawled up on the counter and placed the plant to the far right of the ledge so the camera would have a good view of the shower. The placement was something both Joy and Sean noticed.

“Again, an odd spot -- a little bit unusual. We talked about looking for things that are in an unusual place. Why isn’t it centered? Why isn’t it where there’s more sunlight? Why would it be all the way over there?”

We had Joy walk into the shower and showed her the video feed of what that hidden camera could see.

View of the plant camera.

“It’s pointed right at me!” she exclaimed, realizing how her privacy would have been violated.

“Yeah,” said Sean. “Depending if someone else is showering with you, it’s got both of you.”

So, at this point, Joy was only able to find two of the five hidden cameras. While she picked up the picture frame with secret cam inside -- even shaking the frame -- she had no idea there was a camera inside and kept on searching.

It was the same thing with the hidden camera in the wall clock.

“I see a clock,” Joy said during her search. “I don’t see any unusual pin holes in the clock so I’m good there.”

The fifth and final hidden camera Joy failed to spot was the other mini spy cam we purchased. During our setup, we put the camera inside a hollowed-out book, made a hole for the camera’s lens to see through and then placed it on a shelf.

To help Joy find the last three hidden cameras: the picture frame, the wall clock and the book with the hidden cam inside, she powered up both devices and made her way back through the townhouse.

We showed her how the cheaper device was supposed to work: Hold it near a hidden camera and an alarm goes off -- while lights on the device go from green to red.

“Using this one. look how close I have to get,” Joy said to Sean while holding the device over the hollowed-out book. “And now it’s detecting it. I almost have to touch it.”

View from the book looking at Joy.

The second device was more expensive, with a similar alarm when held near a hidden camera. But the alarm on that one wouldn’t stop.

“I just turned it on! And it’s detecting what? Is this place crawling with cameras?” Joy asked.

“Yes,” Sean said laughing. “But, it’s likely detecting Wi-Fi.”

“Again, the Wi-Fi could be here, it could be a neighbor’s Wi-Fi, or it could be a hot spot from your phone,” Sean added.

We then used the infrared light on both devices designed to illuminate a hidden camera lens -- exposing it to the naked eye. The infrared mode worked, but in some cases, Joy had to try really hard to find the pinhole camera lenses.

We went back to the bedroom with the wall clock.

“You had questioned something in here previously on our walk through, on the wall,” Sean said to Joy.

“The clock. Let’s see,” said Joy. “Oh my gosh, it’s so tiny! But I can see it now that i know what I’m looking for oh gosh. Look at that tiny hole!”

Joy looking at the frame on left and the view from the frame on right.

The mode on the devices to detect Wi-Fi did not work on the wall clock or the picture frame because neither were transmitting a signal. Both of those cameras were only recording onto a card.

“It’s not transmitting anything, so this is not detecting it!” Joy pointed out.

We went back to the hollowed-out book on the shelf.

“Hold on. There’s something! There’s a little tiny red light on this!” Joy said.

“Yes ma’am. You found it,” Sean said.

“Barely! It’s barely reflecting,” Joy added. “I can’t even see that from back here. It’s even tinier than the thing in the clock!”

Inside of the book with the hidden cam.

Other ways to check for hidden cameras

Joy said our secret camera experiment left her more aware – and a little concerned, but our goal here was not to make anyone paranoid. And Sean made it clear most people likely don’t have to worry about hidden cameras planted in their hotel rooms or Airbnbs. But people can take some of the power back by knowing what to look for.

If you don’t want to spend money on detectors like the two devices we tried, Sean says you can protect yourself in several other ways:

  • Bring painter’s tape to cover up any suspicious spaces or holes on walls or furniture. Because it’s painter’s tape, it shouldn’t ruin the paint or finish when you remove it before you leave.
  • Use the light on your cellphone to check around the space. If you see something that looks like it might be hidden a camera -- you’ll see the camera lens, when your cellphone light reflects off it.
  • When in doubt, put it out of sight -- like that picture frame, or hanging clock -- anything that’s removable. Put the item face down or in a drawer until your stay is over.

On The Morning Show, Vic Micolucci went over some of the checks you should make as soon as you walk into a hotel room. Press play below to watch:


About the Authors:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.