Are you being stalked? Is someone listening in on you? Does an identity thief or a home invader have you under surveillance at this very moment?

It may sound fantastic, but it actually has happened. In a true case that comes straight from a techno-thriller, an attractive young lady was convinced her ex-boyfriend was monitoring her. He seemed to know things that no one else could know … unless he was listening to her at home. As it turned out, the boyfriend – a tech-support professional – had set up her wireless network and knew all her passwords. He was spying on her email. He could, however, just as easily have monitored her spoken conversations.

Could it happen to you? Fortunately for all of us, the risk of listening devices being deployed in our homes is relatively minor. It is, however, real, and with the proliferation of cheap video cameras, inexpensive digital audio recorders and “spy” equipment – even in the form of popular children’s toys – the odds that you’ve been bugged, that you are under surveillance, are greater than ever.

Changes in technology have driven quite a few changes in popular culture and the risks each citizen faces. It is easier than ever for ordinary citizens – not your government, space aliens, or enemy spies – to plant discreet, effective and very small listening devices in their homes and in the homes of others. These devices range from the benign but irritating (such as electronic gadgets that emit random chirps designed to annoy those within) to the potentially life-saving (miniaturized “nanny cams” that allow parents to identify and obtain evidence of child abuse) to the invasive and offensive (“up-skirt” cameras hidden in public or semi-public changing rooms or toilets).

Listening devices start outside the home in the form of directional microphones. These ray-gun looking gadgets basically collect sound from long distance, allowing someone to “bug” you without actually trespassing on your property.

Once inside the home, a bug can be placed near or in your telephone, worn on the body of a visitor, or planted directly just about anywhere. Web cameras can transmit picture and sound via the Web to anywhere. Spy cameras, especially, can be had disguised as any number of household objects and can even transmit in full color. If you want to get a good idea of just what’s out there, shop for listening devices and cameras as if you wish to bug someone else. The options available to you will amaze you, and the implications are disturbing. So what can you do?

You can go shopping, for one thing. There are countless “bug detectors” on the market that pick up radio frequency transmissions from spy devices and wireless phones. (The same technology is applied to jamming cell phone signals in areas where the owners do not want people using their phones.) You can also purchase telephone tap detectors that connect directly to your phone line. Laser detectors used to spot camera lenses can be used to find the physical reflections of spy devices, too. For a few hundred dollars, you can detect a wide range of listening and spy equipment. This does not mean that you are completely covered. Preventing home or business spying starts with simple precautions:

Don’t allow workmen into your home whom you do not trust or have not invited. For example, if someone shows up unexpectedly claiming to be from a utility company, who needs access to some part of your home, refuse him or her entry. If it’s really important, the utility company will call you – and they should have contacted you in writing anyway.

Don’t leave friends or family members unattended when they are visiting. Unless you have good reason to trust them completely, leaving visitors unattended means they can pretty much do whatever they wish to do, up to and including planting bugs in your phone, under your desk, or elsewhere in your home or business. In the case of a business that receives visits from the public, this may be impossible at times, but you generally never want a guest in your home or business to be left unattended if you can help it (again, unless you have good reason to trust that visitor).

Don’t speak important password information and other sensitive identity data out loud at all if you can help it. If someone is listening in to what you’re saying, the easiest way to prevent them from hearing your email password or your banking login is never to say it out loud. All passwords, for that matter, should be nonsense-terms known only to you that you have not used in conversation. This makes them that much harder to learn or overhear.

Never discuss critical information on a wireless or cordless phone. Wireless phone transmissions, and particularly cordless phone frequencies, can be picked up by scanners and other wireless devices easily and even unintentionally. Don’t give credit card numbers or other sensitive information over your cordless phone or on a mobile phone. Always use a land line.

Be aware of your surroundings. Actually look at the things you keep in your home or business, and be suspicious of items that show up unannounced or unexpected, for whatever reasons. That pen you don’t remember owning might be a listening device. It also doesn’t hurt simply to clean your home or office thoroughly now and again, keeping an eye out for any strange objects or pieces of electronic gear.

Keep it in perspective. While you are taking your precautions, remember that the actual risk that your home or office might be bugged is very low. Most of us simply don’t lead lives that the average person would find interesting enough to want to put us under surveillance.

Remember, too, that such spying can occur. Home invaders, identity thieves and sexual predators don’t care how boring your life is. Keep this in mind and make a reasonable, good-faith effort to keep your home and business free of spy equipment. As always, the responsibility for safer living falls to you.

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