How to Tell If Someone Is Bugging or Tracking You

Real private investigators reveal what to do if you're being watched.

A Person Being Stalked
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Are you being bugged?

To find out, the first step is to consider carefully whether you are sufficiently interesting to warrant surveillance. If you’re a crook, a cheater, or a keeper of political or corporate secrets, the answer may be yes.

But if you’re just a regular Joe, run through this handy checklist: Did you recently snarf down one or more of those slightly odd-tasting cookies you found in your teenager’s backpack? Has any medical professional ever used the word paranoid in your presence? Now reach up and feel the top of your head. Is there anything there? Is it made of tinfoil? If you answer any of these queries in the affirmative, rest easy: It’s unlikely Big Brother, Little Sister, Uncle Sam, or Comrade Vlad is watching.

Suppose, though, that you are, in fact, interesting. You might then raise an eyebrow if your home or office gets burgled but nothing of value is taken. Perhaps a surreptitious Santa left you a surprise gift, embedded in a light fixture or electrical socket.

Be particularly suspicious if your furniture appears to have been moved, or you find plaster dust, which suggests that someone may have drilled into your walls or ceiling. Listen for clicks or other strange noises in your walls or on your phone lines. Consider also whether that gift from a business acquaintance could be a Trojan paperweight or Dumbo-eared desk clock. Maybe pass those along to Goodwill and, if you have any lingering doubts, call in a pro to execute a “bug sweep.”

S. Brian Matthews, private investigator and owner of LA Intelligence, says his firm performs about three sweeps a month using sophisticated electronic detection equipment. How often does he actually find something?

“The national average is about three out of a hundred. So you don’t get a hit very often,” he says. “It’s more about the client having peace of mind knowing there’s no one listening. The last time we found something was a couple of months ago—there was a whole wall full of video cameras inside a guy’s apartment. They were there when he moved in.” And presumably when he moved out, which we guess was approximately five minutes later.

What about tracking? Are you being followed? It’s not impossible there’s a surveillance team trailing you, but . . . seriously, come on.

“You think you’ve got like three PIs following you?” asks Ken Childs, owner of Paramount Investigative Services. “From like 65 to 150 bucks an hour? Twenty-four hours, seven days a week? No.”

On the other hand, someone could easily plant a GPS tracker on your car to monitor your movements. If you have concerns, Childs suggests paying a shop to put your car on a lift so you can take a thorough gander underneath. Assuming the person who’s tracking you can’t get inside your car, any device has most likely been planted somewhere between the rear wheels.

If you do happen to find something, take it directly to the police. Law enforcement can subpoena the tracker’s manufacturer in order to find out who bought it. In many states, tracking a vehicle you don’t own is against the law (bear in mind, though, that it might not be at the top of the police’s priority list).

But forget bugs and trackers—those are so 20th-century. Your biggest vulnerability these days may be sitting right on your desktop, riding around in your briefcase, or taking up space in your pocket, says Matthews. Computer hackers can not only monitor your activity by breaking in and reading your secrets, they can, in some cases, actually turn on your devices’ cameras and microphones to engage in real-time surveillance.

And that’s to say nothing of the data on your movements and whereabouts that’s routinely collected by mobile hardware and software purveyors, ostensibly to “improve your user experience,” or some such code for “enrich ourselves at the expense of your privacy.” Unfortunately, that’s no delusion.

This article appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Seniorhelpline. You can subscribe here.

Do you have unusual questions about how things work and why stuff happens? This is the place to ask them. Don’t be afraid. Nobody will laugh at you here. Email [email protected]

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