What to do if you find a hidden camera in your Airbnb, cruise cabin

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When Saja Rafaeil first noticed shadows inside a bathroom stallon MSC Cruises' Meraviglia ship, she didn't think anything of it. She and her husband were on a sailing that visited Mexico and the Bahamas when she got up use the restroom one night as they were relaxing in a lounge onboard.

"I tried to ignore (the shadows)," she said. Then she saw a hand holding a cellphone reach underneath and upward. "And then that's when I freaked out a little bit."

Saja, who asked to be identified only by her first and middle names because of the nature of the incident, alerted a crew member outside the bathroom who came inside and knocked on the stall door, along with another passenger she had met onboard. Saja also began filming on her phone so she'd have evidence, and she posted the video on TikTok. When the door opened, a male crew member walked out.

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MSC Meraviglia, right, is docked with other ships at PortMiami, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla.
MSC Meraviglia, right, is docked with other ships at PortMiami, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla.

Saja and her husband had a couple days left, including a sea day, before arriving back at Florida's Port Canaveral. "And after that, I just felt so violated that I needed to go back to my room ... and for the next two days (on) the ship I was kind of just in my room," she said.

Saja is among a number of travelers who say they have been filmed or spied on while traveling, whether by a covert culprit or via a hidden camera in their accommodations.

"We are aware of the incident on board MSC Meraviglia and our security team fully cooperated with authorities on this investigation," an MSC spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "We took immediate action to terminate employment of (the) crew member involved and support the impacted guests. The safety and comfort of our guests and crew is our top priority, and we have a zero-tolerance policy for any misconduct on board our ships."

Saja filed a report both with MSC and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office in Florida. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office said in an email that based on information from the draft report, it has not been finalized.

"The suspect did not admit to filming the victim and a search of the suspect’s phone did not locate any video or photos of the victim," the spokesperson added.

Cruise ships are subject to the laws of the place where the vessel is flagged, said Michael Winkleman, a maritime attorney with Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, P.A.

"More often than not, these foreign countries have invasion of privacy laws that are similar to the US.," he said in an email. "As such, it is similarly illegal to have hidden cameras on cruise ships."

How often are people spied on while traveling?

The exact number of incidents is "hard to quantify," because many people do not know they are being filmed or do not report it, said Carrie Pasquarello, CEO and co-founder of Global Secure Resources Inc., a company focused on risk mitigation and threat assessment planning.

Voyeurism, sextortion, extortion and blackmail are among the most common reasons travelers may be filmed without their knowledge or consent, according to Pasquarello. In some cases, those filming may livestream the video to viewers or threaten to expose the footage if those filmed do not give them money or participate in making more sexually explicit content, she said. A 2018 lawsuit claimed a woman was secretly filmed in the shower at a Hilton hotel and extorted for money. The case is still active.

Generally, it is illegal to have cameras in private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms in hotels or other lodging the U.S., according to Pasquarello, though exact laws may vary by state.

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"The location of the cameras, their purpose, and the distribution or publishing of the video are the key factors in these cases," said Lawrence J. Buckfire, attorney for and president of Buckfire Law, a Michigan-based personal injury law firm. His firm has handled several cases where guests found hidden cameras in their hotel rooms and vacation rental properties. "A hidden camera at a main entrance area for security purposes or basic monitoring is generally not actionable in a lawsuit, but a hidden camera in a bedroom or bathroom to capture can provide a basis for a lawsuit."

Does Airbnb allow cameras on rental properties?

Airbnb allows cameras to offer "peace of mind" for security, but they must be disclosed prior to booking, installed in a visible manner and not infringe on anyone's privacy.

Cameras are allowed only in "public spaces and common spaces," not including a living room that has a sofa bed, according to Airbnb's community policies. However, "disconnected devices are allowed as long as they are turned off and proactively disclosed to guests."

Fellow rental platform Vrbo allows "reasonable monitoring outside of the property" and bans any surveillance devices inside.

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What happens if you encounter a camera at your rental?

Last year, Alyssa Casamento booked an Airbnb in Poughkeepsie, New York, for a reunion trip with her college friends. She said the reviews for the rental were good, although once booked, "things were just very odd from the start."

When her friend arrived first at the Airbnb, the door code Casamento was given wasn't working. Suddenly, a man started talking to her over the camera doorbell and gave a different code, Casamento said.

Her friend went inside and the host started texting her friend to take her sneakers off when in the house.

"The specificity of sneakers is a red flag," Casamento said. "That just gave me chills."

Her friend walked around the rental and saw a camera in the corner of a bedroom facing directly at the bed. She started to search for more cameras and found one "very conveniently placed" behind a curtain in the living room facing the couches.

Casamento's friend was the first to arrive at the Airbnb and found an undisclosed camera "very conveniently placed" behind gray curtains.
Casamento's friend was the first to arrive at the Airbnb and found an undisclosed camera "very conveniently placed" behind gray curtains.

"Once I heard that, I was like you need to leave. She's there by herself, I'm obviously terrified for her," Casamento said. The group ended up booking a different hotel, and Casamento called the incident "very unsettling."

Casamento filed a complaint to Airbnb and said she was dismissed at first since the listing disclosed cameras.

"No, it says they're outdoor cameras not cameras facing where I'm going to sleep tonight," she said. The company called her the next day to apologize, investigated the property and refunded her for the booking and hotel in about a month.

"We removed this listing from the platform last year following our investigation due to the violations of our strict camera policy," Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said.

"I'm fairly confident, just based on the comments I saw on my TikTok, that it was a one-off thing, but make no mistake, every Airbnb, hotel, I'm booking from now on, I'm scouring floor to ceiling," she said.

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Pasquarello recommended guests do research via Google on what spy cameras look like before their trip. "You have to know the risks to avoid the risks," she said, noting that cameras can be hidden in a range of items, including lamps and smoke detectors.

Once you're in your room, consider doing a "quick sweep," Pasquarello added, and unplug and stash or cover any items not needed.

"If I'm in a hotel, and there's a radio clock that I'm not using, I'm putting all the electronics I'm not using into a closet," she said.

Buckfire recommended guests inspect air vents and look for any small holes in the walls or ceilings. You can also turn off the lights and use a cellphone flashlight to look for any lens reflections.

What to do if you are spied on while traveling

► If you find a hidden camera in your accommodation or that you are being filmed, Buckfire said to take photos or videos for evidence and then contact the owner of the Airbnb, cruise ship or hotel management.

"An owner that is using cameras for lawful security and property safety purposes should be truthful and acknowledge the presence of the cameras," he said.

► Both Buckfire and Pasquarello recommended reporting the incident to law enforcement.

"If you're in the States, that would be your non-emergency police number," Pasquarello said. On a cruise ship or in a hotel, guests can report the incident to security. If travelers are overseas at the time, she said, they can also call the nearest U.S. embassy.

► Pasquarello also urged travelers to ask for a copy of the police report, both for insurance purposes and so they understand how the crime was documented.

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► If a traveler encounters someone spying on them in real time, she said they should get to safety and find someone to help them. "There's a lot of escalation that can happen in a situation like this," Pasquarello said.

► When crimes like those occur, Winkleman said, travelers "can press charges against the perpetrator and then the matter is in the hands of the prosecuting authority." Travelers can seek to hold the perpetrator and the hotel, cruise line or other company civilly responsible and pursue monetary damages, as well, he said.

"Any person who was the subject of non-consented videotaping in a hotel room or vacation rental may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the property owner," Buckfire said. "Damages in these cases include money compensation for mental anguish and psychological trauma resulting from the invasion of privacy. These damages include embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, anxiety and PTSD.

"People should act in these situations to hold property owners and others accountable for their unlawful conduct," he added. "Without such accountability, other guests in the future will be subject to having their privacy invaded."

For Saja, who is a frequent traveler, the experience soured her on cruising a bit, though perhaps only temporarily. "I mean, it just puts a bad taste in my mouth right now," she said. "But I'm sure with time, I'll be fine."

Have you been spied on during a vacation?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hidden camera on a cruise, Airbnb? Here's what to do.