Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's booker beware in the holiday lets market

This article was written by Sandra O'Connell and was published in The Irish Times Saturday 14th August 2010.


Go Niche: THINK THERE’S nothing worse on holiday than bad weather? Try turning up and finding the villa you just forked out a fortune for doesn’t exist. Or exists but whose owners know nothing about your booking.

It’s a problem private investigator Annie Murphy of Bluemoon Investigations says is on the rise. She was recently engaged to unravel a particularly well-organised scam offering non-existent holiday lets in upmarket Puerto Banus (pictured).

“It was very professional. A number of properties were advertised through classified ads and on letting websites over a period of time. The guy on the end of the phone sounded very plausible. He said he was a quantity surveyor, and directed people to his own business website, which looked the part,” says Murphy.

It was only when people began arriving in Spain and found the properties didn’t exist that the scam became apparent.

By that stage the money had been transferred and the guy on the end of the phone line had stopped answering.

“Turns out his very professional website was made up of material lifted wholesale from two other quantity surveyor websites, including pictures of personnel,” says Murphy.

“The phone was an unregistered pay-as-you-go phone and the people behind the scam couldn’t be tracked down.”

Her advice is to be vigilant. “Avoid booking through classified adverts or from online adverts unless you already know someone who has booked that accommodation before with no problems and only ever make credit or debit card payments through secure websites,” says Murphy.

“If in doubt at all, do not make the booking or hand over any payment and, if a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I spy with my little watch

This article was published in the Independent Saturday July 31 2010

Be afraid. Be very afraid. They are watching you. Your phone could be bugged, your computer tracking your every key stroke and that harmless air freshener on the windowsill fitted with video recording equipment designed to catch you red-handed.
Forget international intrigue, James Bond, or the CIA. The new front line of hi-tech espionage is your office desk. And the spies are all around you.
So if you thought this summer's slippery and cerebral blockbuster, Inception, about the covert world of corporate espionage, was Hollywood fantasy, think again.
Just ask the Michigan couple who this week were accused of stealing more than $40m worth of trade secrets from their former employer, General Motors, and selling them to a Chinese car-maker.
Shashan Du (51) and her husband Yu Qin (49) were under covert investigation since 2006 and this week were charged with secretly downloading highly confidential insider information and selling it to the highest bidder. It is the latest in a growing number of high-profile cases of industrial espionage to hit the headlines.
"We are finding more businesses coming to us," says Annie Murphy of Bluemoon Investigations based in Dun Laoghaire. "Many suspect a particular individual is leaking information to a rival organisation or fear a competitor is trying to steal commercially sensitive information."
In fact, many managers have become so paranoid about the growing threat they do regular 'bug sweeps' of their premises. "Industrial espionage offers huge gains for the person carrying it out," says Murphy.
"We have found employees who want to steal information because they are about to start working for a competitor and others who simply want to try and sell the information. You would be surprised at how often this type of thing is happening."
This new army of mercenaries is equipped with hi-tech gadgets that would make even Mr Bond quiver with delight.
A quick visit to The Spy Shop ( will reveal an Aladdin's Cave of sneaky snooping devices to help any wannabe spy or PI.
Technology, such as Spy Pen Cameras and Deleted Text Message Readers, has flooded onto the market to meet the growing demand.
"The equipment is just getting better and better," says Shane Doran of The Spy Shop. "And it's quite affordable now."
Some of the top sellers include the Covert Car Tracker, the Tissue Box Video Camera and Recorder and the Spy Watch with inbuilt video camera and recording equipment.
"The big change now is for recording systems," says Doran.
"In the past you would have had to have a camera, a power supply and then link it all up to a recorder. But now they all come in one and can be placed in most everyday devices and operated remotely."
One such device is the GSM Infinity Mains adaptor. It not only looks like a normal plug adaptor, but works like one. However, it secretly contains a hidden listening device that allows the owner to snoop from afar on conversations within a room by simply dialling the number of the SIM card located inside the device.
Bluemoon Investigations recently used similar hi-tech wizardry when contacted by a managing director concerned about the amount of fuel seemingly evaporating into thin air.
"It was a manufacturing company with a fairly large transport fleet where large volumes of diesel were unaccounted for," recalls Murphy. "However nothing was showing up on the closed-circuit cameras."
Bluemoon installed hi-tech recording devices around the premises and deployed undercover agents to infiltrate the very heart of the organisation.
"Following surveillance, our hidden cameras captured an employee selling the diesel to friends and local tradesman," reveals Murphy.
However, this didn't explain why there was no evidence on the company's own security cameras.
"One of our covert cameras recorded the company's security guard tampering with company's CCTV recording and removing the evidence. It also recorded him receiving his ill-gotten gains from the other employee for helping to cover up the theft."
Some companies have become so fearful of espionage they are turning the tables and giving employees they no longer trust phones with Bond-like capabilities.
The Spy Store ( sells the Nokia Spy Phone (€179.99), which, once switched to spy mode, becomes the ultimate snooping tool. You can leave the phone unattended and then dial into it to listen in on what is being said. The Nokia E51 Spy Phone (€549.99) is even sneakier. It not only allows you dial in and snoop, but to receive copies of every text message sent from the phone.
Although every self-respecting spy should be aware of Trojans bearing gifts, anyone looking to get their hands on such legally available products could find using them opens a dangerous legal minefield.
"You have to be careful you are not breaking any laws," says Murphy. "If an employee is using a computer to download sensitive information, there is software available that can detect and record their actions. Obviously if the company owns that equipment then they would be entitled to put software on the machine to see if any unauthorised activity is taking place. But you have to be careful you are not breaching anybody's human rights."
So if you are an employee with light fingers, a manager looking to sell company secrets or even a husband playing away from home, just be careful you don't get caught dangling in a web of technology.
Right now you're every move could be tracked and every word recorded. So wherever you find yourself just remember what the spider said to the fly -- "Will you walk into my parlour? 'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy."
Irish Independent