Darling, is there something bugging me?

The spy gadget business is booming - thanks to suspicious lovers, says Meg Carter
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The Independent Culture
I f you ever wondered who else your loved one thinks of on Valentine's Day, worry no longer. Help is now at hand for those seeking proof of a partner's infidelity. It comes in the shape of a new high street phenomenon - the spy shop.

Purveyors of hi-tech surveillance and communications equipment have long cultivated custom of a more personal nature alongside their staple business (companies trying to combat industrial espionage, overseas governments and Roger Cook). But interest in spying devices for personal use has never been greater.

The Electronic Spy Shop opened for business last July, although its owner, Lorraine Electronics Surveillance, has been producing and distributing spy gadgets for the past 17 years.

Situated on a smart West End street, it is just a couple of shop-fronts down from another snoopers' mecca - the Counter Spy Shop of Mayfair (branches include New York, Washington, Miami, Beverly Hills, Mexico and Colombia). A third operator, Spymaster, officially opened for business last month just a few blocks away.

Whether it is a cassette machine the size of a credit card, able to record up to six hours on a single tape, or a bugging device disguised in a three- pin electrical plug, there is a gadget for almost every need.

The director of Spymaster, Lee Marks, demonstrates a wristwatch camera - simply tilt towards the subject and, hey presto. Cameras disguised as cigarette lighters are also available, while a minute "pin-hole" version can be secreted in a cigarette packet or pot plant.

Mr Marks has built up his range of specialist eavesdropping, personal protection and communications equipment over the past three years, previously running his business from the basement of his home. Since opening Spymaster just off Oxford Street, business has trebled year on year, he says. The reason is simple - passing trade. Mr Marks plans to open branches in two more UK cities.

Video cameras can be disguised as alarm clocks, smoke alarms or even teddy bears, says Peter Hewitt, marketing manager for the Counter Spy Shop. The soft toy has proved popular in the US, where there are mounting fears about child abuse inflicted by nannies, he explains. However, most popular buy for this year's suspicious lover is telephone recording equipment. "If someone has an extramarital relationship, they will inevitably plan clandestine meetings over the phone," he explains.

Basic phone recorders start at a couple of hundred pounds, although price depends on ease of access - how often tapes and batteries can be changed. More costly items involve transmitters attached to the phone line to relay conversations to a recorder with built-in receiver up to 300 metres away.

"We have been amazed by the demand for this sort of equipment," says Mr Marks. "We sell 10 to women for every one we sell to a man. You can draw your own conclusions. Maybe women are just more suspicious."

Overall, demand for surveillance gear seems equally split between men and women. What is different is why they purchase and how.

"Women normally buy this equipment to confirm their worst fears," according to Mr Hewitt. In contrast, men are more likely to buy if they are actually preparing for divorce proceedings.

At Spymaster, staff would never be so indiscreet as to ask for specific details of use. "If a customer comes in sheepishly, we have to put her at her ease, and you don't do that by asking her what she will use the product for and why," says Mr Marks. But it is often obvious when reasons are of a delicate nature. It is easy to tell many recording devices are used by women for personal rather than business use because of their "demeanour", he adds. Female shoppers tend to be embarrassed or evasive.

ln contrast, male customers are only too eager to share their woes. "They want to talk about it - which can be quite disturbing when they come in and say, `My wife is having an affair with my best friend.' It can be difficult to know what to say," Mr Marks adds.

While there are no legal restrictions on sale or purchase of surveillance equipment, there are limits on how information gathered by covert means can be used. A few specialist items, such as devices which intercept and record cellular phone conversations, are "restricted sale" products, available only if the purchaser can supply a certificate or proof of intended use. Otherwise, anyone can buy anything - provided their pockets are deep enough.

"We don't moralise - we don't know if we are dealing with a gamekeeper or a poacher," Mr Marks adds. "The whole argument, is it right or wrong, could just as well be applied to buying a knife at Selfridges."