It happened to me. You check into a vacation rental, set up and locate the surveillance cameras. Even when cameras are technically allowed, it is very alarming.
Ready to be shocked. Cameras can hide in air vents, lamps, electrical outlets, and even unassuming objects like humidifiers and TV remotes. You have to see these cameras to believe they exist. Tap or click for 10 hidden cameras so sneaky you’d never know they were there.
Don’t talk about your trip on social media to keep your home safe while on vacation. I also use a cheap Amazon Echo to alert me to any sound like breaking glass. Tap or click here to learn how to set it up and use your laptop or desktop to record what it sees while you’re away.
If you are going on vacation soon, it is essential to know your rights regarding the surveillance cameras in your rental.
It’s easier than ever to spy
Years ago, surveillance cameras were expensive and bulky. These days they are affordable and easy to install and hide. According to the rental service, the owner is within his rights to install cameras.
An Airbnb I rented a few years ago had a dozen cameras inside the house. The owner disclosed the cameras using a small font at the bottom of the listing. Now, I read rental adverts very carefully and ask these questions before I book:
• What is the exact number of cameras and where are they located?
• Are the cameras recording?
• What happens to these recordings after my stay?
Airbnb allows security cameras or audio recorders in “public areas” and “common areas.” This means there are no bathrooms, bedrooms or other sleeping areas. For example, a camera or other surveillance device is not allowed if the living room has a sofa bed. Hidden and undisclosed cameras are also not allowed.
VRBO allows cameras and other surveillance devices only outside of a property. The only exception: smart devices that cannot be activated remotely. Customers must be informed and given the opportunity to opt out.
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But is it legal?
Laws on this sensitive topic vary from state to state. The federal video voyeurism law states that you may not “capture an image of an individual’s private space without their consent, and do so knowingly in circumstances in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of life private”. It is important to note that “private space” refers to nudity or lesser attire.
Local and state laws generally allow homeowners to install cameras in “public spaces.” This distinction is important. Private spaces, such as bedrooms and bathrooms, or any place where privacy could reasonably be expected to be prohibited. In a situation where you are renting a single room of a house or apartment, it becomes trickier.
There is another caveat: it is illegal to record someone for blackmail or other malicious intent. Audio recording also has much stricter rules than video. In many states, both parties must be aware that registration is in progress.
If you are renting, check the listing carefully for any mention of cameras. Whether or not you see a disclosure, it is your responsibility upon arrival to check each room. I’ll show you how.
How to spot surveillance cameras
Larger cameras are easy to spot, but anyone can easily hide smaller cameras behind furniture, vents, or decorations. An easy way to spot most types of cameras is to look for the lens reflection.
• Turn off the lights and scan the room slowly with a flashlight or laser pointer, looking for light reflections.
• Scan the room from multiple locations so you don’t miss a camera aimed only at certain locations.
• Inspect vents and any holes or gaps in walls or ceilings.
You can also get an RF detector. This gadget can pick up wireless cameras that you might not see. Unfortunately, RF detectors aren’t ideal for wired or recording-only cameras. For these, you’ll need to stick with the lens reflection method.
If you can connect to the rental’s wireless network, a free program like wireless network watcher shows which gadgets are connected. You may be able to spot connected cameras this way. I do this in every rental I stay at, just to check what’s connected to the grid.
Be aware that the owner may have put the cameras on a second network, or they may be wired or recording only, so this is not a security option.
If a home automation system controls the rental property, it is relatively easy to find cameras. Open the system controller menu and look for anything that mentions cameras. As a result, you can scan TV channels for anything suspicious. I’ve found lots of cameras in a vacation rental this way.
More travel tips: 5 smart tech steps to take before hitting the road
What to do if you find a camera
If you find an indoor surveillance camera that has not been disclosed to you, pick up the phone and call the police. Tell them you have direct evidence that your landlord is spying on you inside your rental home without your knowledge or permission. Use this exact expression.
Document the situation with videos and photos on your smartphone. If you are traveling with other people, ask them to be witnesses once the police arrive. Remind them that they were about to be victimized too. Once you have your police report, contact the rental site.
It’s not just an annoyance. This is a serious invasion of privacy.
PODCAST CHOICE: iPhone updates, Twitter warnings, Instagram scam
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Discover all the latest technologies on the Kim Komando show, the nation’s largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For his daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit his website at Komando.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.