It happened to me. You check into a vacation rental, get settled in and spot surveillance cameras. Even when the cameras are technically allowed, it’s very alarming.
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If you’re going on vacation any time soon, it’s essential to know your rights regarding surveillance cameras in your rental.
It’s easier than ever to spy
Years ago, surveillance cameras were expensive and bulky. These days, they’re affordable and easy to install and hide. Depending on the rental service, the owner is within their rights to install cameras.
An Airbnb I rented a few years ago had about a dozen cameras inside the home. The owner disclosed the cameras using a tiny font at the bottom of the listing. Now I read rental listings 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 those recordings after my stay?
Airbnb allows security cameras or audio recorders in “public spaces” and “common spaces.” That means no bathrooms, bedrooms, or other sleeping areas. For instance, a camera or other monitoring device is not allowed if the living room has a sofa bed. Concealed and undisclosed cameras are not permitted, either.
VRBO allows for cameras and other surveillance devices only outside a property. The one exception: Smart devices that cannot be activated remotely. Guests must be informed and given the option to deactivate them.
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But is it legal?
Laws on this sticky subject vary from state to state. The Federal Video Voyeurism Act says you can’t “capture an image of a private area of an individual without their consent, and knowingly does so under circumstances in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” It’s important to note that “private area” refers to nudity or lesser states of dress.
Local and state laws usually permit property owners to install cameras in “public spaces.” This is an important distinction. Private areas, like bedrooms and bathrooms, or anywhere anyone would reasonably expect privacy are off-limits. In a situation where you rent a single room of a house or apartment, it gets trickier.
There’s another caveat: It’s 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 the recording is taking place.
If you’re renting, check the listing carefully for any mention of cameras. Whether or not you see a disclosure, it’s your responsibility upon arrival to check every single room. I’ll show you how.
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How to spot surveillance cameras
Larger cameras are easy to spot, but anyone can easily hide smaller cameras behind furniture, vents, or decorations. A simple way to spot most types of cameras is to look for the lens reflection.
• Turn off the lights and slowly scan the room with a flashlight or laser pointer, looking for bright reflections.
• Scan the room from multiple spots so you don’t miss a camera pointed only at certain places.
• Inspect the vents and any holes or gaps in the walls or ceilings.
You can also get an RF detector. This gadget can pick up wireless cameras you might not see. Unfortunately, RF detectors aren’t great for wired or record-only cameras. For those, 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 what gadgets are connected. You might be able to spot connected cameras that way. I do this in every rental I stay in, just to double-check what’s connected to the network.
Be aware that the owner might have put the cameras on a second network, or they could be wired or record-only types, so this is not a fail-safe option.
If a home automation system controls the rental property, it’s relatively easy to find cameras. Open the system controller’s menu and look for anything mentioning cameras. Accordingly, you can scan the TV channels for anything suspicious. I found a lot of cameras in a vacation rental this way.
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What to do if you find a camera
If you find an indoor surveillance camera that was not 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 phrase.
Document the situation with video and photos on your smartphone. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to be witnesses once the police arrive. Remind them they were about to be victimized too. Once you have your police report, contact the rental site.
This isn’t just an annoyance. It’s a serious invasion of privacy.
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The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.