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How to detect hidden cameras in vacation rentals and hotel rooms

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Summer travel season is in full swing, which means hotel, Airbnb and Vrbo reservations are picking up. And along with that, for some guests, there's concern - to paraphrase that old song - that somebody's watching them. Over the past few years, we've seen reports of Airbnb and Vrbo landlords posting private photos and information and unscrupulous hotel employees selling streams of what happens in hotel rooms. And we definitely don't want that. My goodness. But there are ways for travelers to protect themselves. And we're joined now by Thorin Klosowski, privacy and security editor at Wirecutter. Welcome.

THORIN KLOSOWSKI: Hello. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So first - and we should be clear that the people who do this, whether it's at Airbnb or a hotel - they are going against policy, right?

KLOSOWSKI: Correct, yeah. Airbnb, like, specifically states that hosts need to disclose any cameras on the property, and those cameras should not be in any private areas, like a bathroom or a bedroom.

RASCOE: And hotels obviously have the same sorts of policies.

KLOSOWSKI: Yep.

RASCOE: So let's start with you're going into a home - a Vrbo, an Airbnb situation. How do you know where there may be recording devices?

KLOSOWSKI: The first thing that I would personally do is grab a flashlight, go to the kind of private areas that I would not expect a camera to be and flash that around to see if I see a reflection of what a camera lens would look like, which is kind of a blue reflection. You can also turn off all of the lights and you will see an IR signal. It's kind of like a red dot that glows. And if that's recording, like, a night vision, you would also see that.

RASCOE: And are there apps out there now that are intended to help people find these hidden cameras?

KLOSOWSKI: There are, and I don't love them.

RASCOE: OK.

KLOSOWSKI: I actually find the flashlight to be easier and a little bit better at finding things. A lot of the apps kind of have their own bad behaviors of often requiring a subscription fee or something like that that kind of feels a little icky. But they also - like, if you use them to scan for, say, a camera, it will kind of pick up any reflection. So glass or a camera would kind of show up the same thing. And then you end up just kind of walking close to it and inspecting it anyway.

RASCOE: Have you ever found, like, a camera or anything where you were staying?

KLOSOWSKI: No, I haven't. I have done the scans before. And, funnily enough, one of the reasons I don't trust the apps is because it wasn't even picking up the Ring camera, which was clearly on the door. And it can be useful, to be clear, but it also tends to be a little bit more technical, a little bit more complicated. You might not really know what you're looking at. And you might either be scared for nothing or be totally missing something important.

RASCOE: So in addition to, like, the flashlight, is there anything else that you can do?

KLOSOWSKI: Yeah, I think you can cover things up that maybe do look a little weird or you're unsure about. You can unplug the Wi-Fi router and, if you do so, it might alert the host. And you can also just kind of unplug anything that looks kind of fishy, whether that's an alarm clock or just a USB plug that seems random in the wall.

RASCOE: And, I mean - so how worried should guests be about this? Like, you know, like, is this a really big issue?

KLOSOWSKI: I haven't been able to find, like, a really great list of just how many times these get reported. And Airbnb does have policies in place, and they'd get picked up on the news enough that clearly, they've instituted rules. But I don't know how often they, you know, get reported.

RASCOE: So renter beware. That's Thorin Klosowski, privacy and security editor at Wirecutter. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KLOSOWSKI: Yeah, thanks for having me.

(SOUMNDBITE OF HUSKY RESCUE'S "FAST LANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.