A Shop For The Wary

March 28, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

When the Spy Factory opens Saturday in Lutherville, there will be no cloaks or daggers for sale. But almost every other gadget that could appeal to the security-minded will be there, ranging from sophisticated spy camera wristwatches to plain old handcuffs.

"With the increase in terrorism, crime and robberies, people are getting paranoid and they are looking for ways to protect themselves -- everyone from parents to business executives to federal agents to private investigators," said Patrick Dougal, regional manager for the San Antonio-based retailer.

Among the eavesdropping items on sale are transmitters that masquerade as pens ($800), calculators ($950) and electric wall outlets ($800). There's even a low-power model that's smaller than a man's first pinky joint ($250).

zTC While the Spy Factory may be chock full of gadgets to intercept communications, and it's legal to sell them, Maryland law is particularly strict about using them to eavesdrop or record conversations.

About 40 states permit interception of communications with the consent of one party to the conversation, but Maryland forbids it, except by a court order or as part of a police investigation, according to Christopher Romano, an assistant Maryland attorney general in the investigations division.

This, for example, prevents private investigators from using body wires to record conversations and even prohibits parents from tapping their own telephones to spy on their children, Mr. Romano said.

Spy cameras are treated differently, he noted, and photos or videotapes without sound are not illegal.

Maryland also places responsibility on the seller of eavesdropping equipment to ensure it is sold only to legitimate purchasers. "It's going to be a factual question whether a merchant knows the design is for this [interception] purpose," Mr. Romano said.

Mr. Dougal said the Spy Factory requires strict identification from buyers and makes them sign a waiver stating that they will not use equipment for illegal purposes.

Mr. Romano said a waiver could be a mitigating factor if a case were brought, but not an absolute defense for the seller.

On the other hand, he said that in his 10 years with the attorney general's office, there have been no prosecutions under Maryland's 1977 eavesdropping law.

Mr. Dougal, who will be in Baltimore this week to help local manager John S. Landbeck III of Havre de Grace get started, said interception equipment represents a small part of the company's sales.

The firm's catalog includes bulletproof vests, pepper Mace spray, blackjacks, video surveillance equipment, bug detectors and hollowed out books for hiding valuables.

On the low end, there's a set of two-headed and two-tailed quarters ($29.95), just like the ones Cold War spies used to identify themselves. On the high end, there's a fully armored Jeep Cherokee for $69,500.

But the Spy Factory store will carry no stun guns. Although the devices are in the company's 40-page catalog, they are outlawed in Baltimore city and county, according to Deputy County State's Attorney Howard B. Merker.

Nationally, sales of security equipment are increasing even though statistics show decreases in violent crime said Stephen Lake, general manager of The Edge Company, of Brattleboro, Vt.

Edge has specialized in knives for years but is carrying more and more "Spy & Security Gear" and "Cloak and Dagger" in its mail-order catalog, Mr. Lake said.

"There are a lot of James Bond aficionados who like gadgets but most of our sales are to homeowners, through magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics," Mr. Lake said. "People love home security items, including night vision equipment. Most of what we sell had its origin in miliary applications 10 or 15 years ago."

E. Jay Miller, a spokesman for the Baltimore County police, said that while authorities believe that criminals can "get a leg up" from the unrestricted sale of such equipment, "It's free enterprise and they have a right to sell it. We can't interfere with that."

Robert L. Oatman, head of Towson-based R. L. Oatman & Associates, an international security firm, said he is wary of gadgetry and tends not to use it. "We have no demand for it," said the retired Baltimore County police major.

Taking such equipment overseas during executive-protection jobs is more trouble than it's worth because foreign officials are often suspicious of such things, he said.

"When we do the advance, we're protecting the environment for the executive," said Mr. Oatman, whose firm handled security for NBC network officials at two Olympic Games. "We don't do all this exciting stuff," he said with a laugh.

Mr. Landbeck, the 27-year-old manager of the Spy Factory in Lutherville, teaches evening high school classes in Bel Air. He said he has always been a "technophile" and applied for the job when he heard about it.

He has no law enforcement or espionage experience, aside from brief stint as a dormitory security guard during his days at Brigham Young University.

"I'm a novice at this," Mr. Landbeck said, "but I'm excited at the prospect of managing a store on my own and the idea of having a set of night goggles of my own is exciting."

Mr. Landbeck said his Mormon beliefs gave him pause initially. "I can see how someone could operate a store like this and be sunk in the moral issue of selling things that could be used for blatantly illegal purposes," he said.

"But I'm comfortable with my decision. For example, I will tell people to never ever say anything important on a cordless or cellular phone because we will sell scanners that will pick them up. And I want people who need bullet-proof vests, like store owners and clerks, to know they will be available."

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