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Shop Talk: discreet devices for the spying game 

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"My private concerns could destroy me," the well-heeled Gold Coast woman says, visibly nervous. "Did you know that Ma Bell can listen to your phone? I'm afraid that my privacy has been invaded all along."

She's describing her predicament to Michael Pinsker, proprietor of the Spy Shop on Dearborn near Division. He recommends a voice scrambler for her phone. They start at $230. "It's the highest form of phone security," he says, explaining that anyone other than the intended listener--who also needs a scrambler--would hear gibberish.

His phone rings. It's a woman saying her ex-son-in-law is sexually abusing her granddaughter during the little girl's weekly visits with him. Pinsker suggests she document the abuse with a wireless video system, a black box about the size of a cigarette pack with a wide-angle lens that transmits to a television monitor or VCR. It can be hidden just about anywhere, he says, describing how a store owner installed one in the eye of a mannequin. He says it's on sale at half price, $649.95.

The Spy Shop--Discreet Electronics & Security, Inc. is its official name--opened in January. Similar shops have been popping up in other cities, Pinsker says, but his is the first in the midwest. Cops and private eyes make up about 25 percent of his business, though anyone can buy. Many of his products are designed to outsmart each other, creating unlimited opportunities for electronic recrimination. There are devices for recording telephone conversations and gadgets for detecting those devices. Room bugs and bug finders. "We call them measures and countermeasures," Pinsker says.

A woman calls, says she hasn't been able to use her phone since she filed a lawsuit against a federal judge. She can't get through when trying to make calls, and people trying to call her get a busy signal, even though she has Call Waiting. And she hears clicks. "It all started when I picked up the phone and heard a voice say, 'Let's see who she's calling this time.' I thought I was going crazy. I called the phone company from a friend's house, but they said there's nothing they can do." Pinsker prescribes a device that "detects and defeats" phone bugs. They start at $299.95.

A dapper, 50-ish gentleman walks in. After a few minutes of bubbly chitchat he gets to the point. "I'm having a relationship with a woman," he says flatly, "and she's married." Pinsker doesn't flinch. The man says he's worried her husband may be bugging or listening in on her phone conversations. Pinsker again recommends the bug detector.

Two young women burst in. "I need a gadget from this place!" one barks, stamping her foot. Her friend grunts, "Gimme somethin' I can kill somebody with!" and picks up a side-handle baton. "Heh-heh. Wrong shop!" Pinsker says. He doesn't sell weapons, he says, just a few self-defense items. The first woman ends up buying a pair of rear-vision sunglasses and a book on how to disappear.

"People want to protect their interests," Pinsker says. "They sometimes buy books on aggressive measures so they'll know how to counter them." Along the wall opposite the sales counter are numerous titles: High-Tech Harassment (How to Get Even With Anybody at Any Time), How to Get Anything on Anybody, Techniques of Safecracking, How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, Secrets of International Identity Change.

A young guy, seeming a little shy, comes in and buys a book called Smart Bombs. He says he's a film student at Columbia College and needs material for a script he wants to write.

A woman and a younger man enter. "This place is frightening," she whispers. "It's for crooks!" She points to an array of official-looking badges and handcuffs, then to a glass case containing a portable siren, the kind cops in unmarked cars plunk on their roofs. "Look at that," she says. "That's how criminals pull women over and rape them. I'm gettin' out of here!"

Pinsker says employees can get the goods on their bosses by wearing a hidden microcassette recorder ("Good for proving sexual harassment"). But the alleged offender can first run a defensive check with a device that sniffs out recorders. Pinsker also carries a selection of wireless electronic transmitters, little microphones that send an FM radio signal that can be recorded. One looks just like a fountain pen.

He admits that some of these devices may lure their users into areas of dubious legality. The products are neutral, he says. It's their application that matters. "If you're going to use any of these products in a way that might have illegal repercussions, you'd better check with an attorney first." A large disclaimer on the wall reads, "WARNING: The equipment sold in this store . . . is not to be used for the surreptitious interception of oral communications."

In a glass case near the front window is a portable parabolic dish with headphones, a highly sensitive microphone for long-distance listening (deluxe model, $229.95). Made of black plastic, it's about a foot and a half in diameter, with a short pole protruding from its center and a handle on the bottom. "It's primarily used for hunting," Pinsker insists. "You can hear a deer blinking a hundred yards away." He also sells an umbrella that operates on the same principle--a high-powered directional microphone is hidden in its tip, and a thin wire connects to a single earplug. No doubt it also comes in handy in the woods. Another very sneaky item is the wristwatch camera, which is virtually indistinguishable from a regular digital watch, though a close look reveals a tiny lens on top. It uses a disk film that yields seven black-and-white photos and comes with its own developing kit. "These probably aren't the kind of pictures you'd want developed at Walgreen's," Pinsker says.

He says sales of double-lens night-vision goggles, the infrared gadget made famous by The Silence of the Lambs, are brisk, though they go for $1,995. Also popular are hand-held, Russian-made binocular and monocular versions that have even more power to turn night into day.

"Recessions make people more needful and drive them to extreme measures they'd otherwise not take," he says. "And the information age has created a need to protect intellectual property. Bad guys can usurp to their advantage and leave you in the dust." He snuffs his cigarette. "After all, there's such a thing as good paranoia."

The Spy Shop, 1156 N. Dearborn, will have its official grand opening Monday, May 10, through Saturday, May 15. Outside should be a flashy NSX Acura with gun portals, tear-gas and oil-slick ejectors, infrared cameras, armor plating, etc. Hours are 10 to 8 Monday through Friday, 10 to 6 Saturday; call 664-7797.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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