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Smart Home

Hidden cameras are forbidden in your vacation rental, but some exist anyway. Here's how to track them down

Protect your privacy with this guide.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It's firmly against Airbnb's and other rental companies' policies, but that doesn't stop some hosts from putting hidden, undisclosed cameras in their rentals. Hosts have the right to use surveillance devices to protect their property, provided they are used in common areas and are clearly disclosed in their listing. Unfortunately, there are occasional hosts who don't play by the rules.

This isn't meant to fearmonger, or make you reject the idea of staying in a vacation rental, but merely to give you the tools to protect yourself should you need them. (It might also help to be aware of other common issues, like bedbugs that could crop up in your Airbnb.)

The policies

Firsts things first: Airbnb and other vacation sites require that hosts tell guests that they are using surveillance devices. They also strictly forbid hosts from using them in private spaces, including -- but not limited to -- bathrooms, bedrooms and other sleeping areas.

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A surveillance device is anything that can capture or transmit audio, video or still images. That technically even includes a webcam on a computer or a smartphone that's kept in the rental.

For its part, Airbnb has made it easier for hosts to note in their listing that the units have surveillance devices. That helps you (the guest) know before you book.

Read more: The things you should look for in a rental listing before you book.

Know before you go

Someone who is going to hide a camera from you isn't going to let you know you about it. However, if you ask the question before you arrive, their response can be telling.

Try "Are there any electronics in the home I should know about?" or "Do you use cameras in any part of the house?" If they don't give you a straight answer or you get the sense they are trying to hide something, you can move on to another listing.

nest-cam-iq-3

A Nest Cam is easy to find, but the most sinister surveillance cameras are hidden in plain site.

Chris Monroe/CNET

How to find hidden cameras

Visual check

Alright, you've booked your rental and have arrived. Your first line of defense is to do a visual check. Because they are relatively large and conspicuous, you'll easily spot an Amazon Cloud Cam or Nest Cam.

What's more sinister are the seemly innocent-looking devices. It's sad but true that surveillance cameras are disguised to look like anything these days; think motion detectors, a smoke detector, baby monitors, USB charging plugs and wall clocks.

Use a radio frequency detector

If you are particularly worried about hidden cameras in your rental, and are willing to spend upwards of $80 for peace of mind, get a radio frequency (RF) detector.

They work by scanning a room to find devices that are transmitting radio signals and then lighting up or beeping to indicate something is there. Anything that uses Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to send or receive data (which most of today's security and hidden cameras do) will set off an RF detector. They aren't fail-safe though, because they won't pick up cameras that are recording, but not transmitting.

This RF detector from Brickhouse Security is one of the more reasonably priced ones out there, and is compact enough to bring with you on every trip. Whatever RF detector you buy, avoid the cheap ones on Amazon. A lot have plenty of complaints that they don't work at all.

Use your smartphone's camera

You might also be able to find hidden cameras using your smartphone. The camera on most phones can pick up infrared light that some cameras use for night vision -- it's the same light that your remote uses to send a signal to your TV. Check out the guide from How-To Geek which explains how to use your smartphone to detect hidden cameras.

Read more: 9 devices every Airbnb host should put in their rental.

What to do if you find a hidden camera

If you end up finding a hidden camera in your vacation rental, there are several actions you can take.

If you booked your rental with Airbnb, contact them immediately. In a statement to CNET, Nick Shapiro, Airbnb's global head of Trust & Risk Management said this:

"We take reports of any violations of this extremely seriously and will investigate and take action as appropriate. In the rare event that any issue should arise, if anyone ever feels uncomfortable about something in their listing, our global Customer Service and Trust and Safety teams are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in 11 different languages to help make things right."

Your next option is to call the cops, since the person you are renting from could be breaking the law if their hidden camera is in a place that someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, like a bathroom or bedroom. The exact laws vary from state to state and country to country, but it's worth reaching out to the authorities to see what kind of legal recourse you have.

Try to enjoy your vacation

Look, don't drive yourself crazy tearing through your rental space looking for a hidden camera. Part of the risk we take by leaving our homes is dealing with surveillance out in the world. Of course you don't want to deal with hidden cameras during your vacation, but don't let that possibility ruin your trip before you leave.

Establish a rapport with your host before you arrive to get a sense of how helpful and honest they are. Arm yourself with the knowledge of where cameras could be hiding, and trust your intuition if something doesn't feel right.

Finally, weigh the risk versus rewards of choosing a vacation rental over a hotel (which is most definitely recording you in the lobby or hallways, by the way). At the end of the day, that gorgeous villa in Crete or Parisian loft is probably worth the risk.

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