Are They Watching You? Finding Hidden Cameras in Vacation Rentals

By: Nathan Chandler  | 

2 girls checking in to a house
The rental house looks great but should you be worried about hidden cameras? Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

When you arrive at your Airbnb- or VRBO-booked rental home, you hope to relax and let your hair down. But these days, high-tech surveillance gadgets of all kinds make it easy for unscrupulous property owners to spy on you, perhaps during your most private moments.

Modern surveillance cameras are cheap, tiny, and in some cases, designed to be difficult to spot, particularly if you're not keeping an eye out for them. They are often made to look like other products, like smoke detectors, alarm clocks, AC power adapters, computer speakers, books, houseplants, or other common objects, all the better to disguise their real purpose. A 2019 survey by financial services firm IPX found that 11 percent of respondents had discovered a hidden camera in an Airbnb.

You'll never know – and may never want to know – what a sketchy person might do with those photos and videos. Ugh. It's almost enough to make you opt for a permanent staycation in the familiar surroundings of your own home.

But let's back up for a moment. Is it legal for someone to record your activities at a rental property? After all, you don't own the place and it's understandable that landlords might be anxious to make sure you're following the rules and not throwing wild parties that could damage the home.

"There is no federal law regulating hidden surveillance, which means that the law of the state in which the Airbnb property is located would govern," emails Matthew A. Dolman, a managing partner at Sibley Dolman Gipe, a Florida law firm. "For example, in Florida, Minneapolis and Minnesota, hidden cameras are only prohibited where a person would have a 'reasonable expectation of privacy.' Whether a kitchen or living area owned by a host would fit into this category would depend on the circumstances."

He says that by contrast, in New Hampshire, Maine, South Dakota, and Delaware, the host would legally need consent to use hidden surveillance of any kind.

Some rental companies realize the issues and try to balance the power of owners and renters.

"Airbnb prohibits the use of indoor security cameras without full disclosure, and cameras are prohibited entirely from bedrooms or bathrooms," says Dolman. "However, if you're staying at an Airbnb and discover a camera planted without your knowledge, a refund is the most the company will generally do to remedy the situation."

In short, private rooms like bedrooms and bathrooms really should be off-limits for any law-abiding owner. But it's the bad eggs we're worried about. How can you proactively protect yourself?

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Searching for That Hidden Camera

A physical inspection is the first and most obvious step. Look for items that are conveniently located near beds or showers where a tiny camera might be hidden. Even innocent items like tissue boxes and stuffed animals are suspect – keep in mind that modern cameras need only a hole the size of a small nail head to disguise their presence. They call 'em "spy cams" for reason, you know.

If you listen carefully, you may even hear motion-activated cameras as they turn on when you enter a room. Some models buzz, click or even cause static-laced interference on phone calls as you talk to a friend.

There's another vital point to consider — all cameras require a lens, and lenses glint in bright light. Turn off all lights, close the curtains, and then use a bright flashlight (or your phone's flashlight) to check each room, says Attila Tomaschek, a digital privacy researcher with ProPrivacy, which sells spy gear. You may see light bouncing off a tiny lens hidden in an air vent or similar spot.

The darkened rooms may also help you detect lights emitted by the cameras. Some cameras have LEDs that illuminate when they're powered on.

See that mirror in the bedroom? Press your finger against it and look at your fingertip. On a normal mirror, there's a gap between your fingertip and the mirror. On a see-through mirror, however, there's no gap.

Your smartphone's camera is a useful detection tool, too.

"Your front-facing camera (the one you take selfies with) typically won't have an infrared light filter, which means that you'll be able to use it to detect the infrared light sources that night-vision cameras rely on to operate in the dark," says Tomaschek, via email. "Simply turn out the lights and activate the front-facing camera on your phone and sweep the rental while watching your phone's screen. If you notice any lights show up on your screen that are purple or white, take a closer look at where those lights are coming from and you may find a hidden camera."

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Apps for Detection

You can continue by checking your host's WiFi network with a scanner app like Fing, says Tomascheck. You'll be able to see all of the devices connected to the network, listed by name and/or functionality. Your smartphone and laptop will appear, as well as smart TVs, routers and other common devices. You may also spot a Ring device or similar gadget that's meant to surveil the front door or other parts of the exterior. If you see cameras mounted near the front and back doors, well, it's no surprise that those devices are using the network.

Of course, if the camera isn't connected to the network (or it's connected to another network you can't access) you won't spot it. As an extra step, you may also want to turn on your phone's Bluetooth and stroll through the house to see if you notice any unknown devices appear on your screen.

Or you can try apps like Hidden Camera Detector, which gets mixed reviews but performs many of the functions of so-called camera detectors (which can cost more than $100) for just a few bucks. If you want to spend the money, you can invest in a camera detector that blends lens-glint detection with radio frequency detection in an effort to pinpoint cameras. There are also ultra-pricey options that essentially illuminate the camera for you, even if it's powered off.

With all of the tech options at your disposal, don't overlook one very powerful tool of self-protection – your intuition. "If you personally meet the host of the property you're renting, you can ask them directly if there are any hidden cameras on the property that you should know about," says Tomascheck. "Pay close attention to how your host responds. If the host seems cagey or is in any way uncomfortable with the question, do a thorough sweep of the property for hidden cameras, or find alternate accommodation if possible."

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