This story is the latest installment in our YouTube series, "What's Brewing,” investigative reporter Jenna Bourne's series of deep dives. Click here to check out the series and subscribe to our YouTube channel: The Deeper Dive.
Unsuspecting people are being secretly recorded during their most private moments. 10 Investigates has uncovered video voyeurism is on the rise across the Tampa Bay area.
We started looking into this issue when we uncovered a hidden camera investigation in Tampa that no media outlet has reported on before: A worker found a camera in a James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital employee bathroom, disguised as a phone charger, in October 2020.
10 Investigates’ Jenna Bourne found documentation of the hidden camera incident while looking through records of a whistleblower complaint against the Tampa VA for an unrelated issue.
When she started reaching out to employees who work in the unit of the VA where that whistleblower claimed the hidden camera was found, they all said the same thing: Reach out to the public affairs office, instead.
A public records request revealed the Tampa VA sent an email to its staff days after Jenna started asking questions, telling them, “As a reminder, if a media representative reaches out to an employee, they are under no obligation to respond and should refer inquiries to the PAO [Public Affairs Office].”
A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson confirmed to 10 Investigates that an employee found the camera disguised as a phone charger in a co-ed staff restroom, and VA Police identified three people who’d been recorded on the memory card inside.
“Based on preliminary VA police investigation there is no evidence anyone would have access to the images without the memory card. On October 16, 2020, three victims were identified and immediately notified of the incident. Facility leadership met with approximately 15 staff assigned to that unit later that same day,” wrote VA Public Affairs Specialist Gary Kunich in an emailed statement.
Kunich said the VA Office of the Inspector General closed the case in April 2021 and the camera was returned to the Tampa VA for destruction.
More than a year after the camera was found in the bathroom, neither the VA OIG or Tampa VA will come out and say no one was ever caught. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed to 10 Investigates it hasn’t charged anyone.
Jenna requested an interview with Tampa VA Medical Center Executive Director David Dunning.
“We will not be able to accommodate an interview at this time… While unfortunate, this incident does not represent a pattern. JAHVH Veteran patients and staff are protected on campus by the VA Police, a dedicated department of federal police officers who are here to ensure the safety of everyone at our facilities,” James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital Communications and Media Service Chief Kimberly wrote in an email.
Spy Cams at School: A Teacher Secretly Filmed Students Nude
“I just think that’s absolutely absurd,” said Emily Ashman, who was secretly recorded by her high school fashion design teacher in a changing room. “For those people who have been recorded, it’s, like, the worst feeling. I mean, with me, I knew who it was. So, I knew who to, like, project my anger towards. But for them, that’s just like a complete, utter – that would just take it all out of me, to not even know.”
Ashman was recorded by her teacher Mark Ackett at Bloomingdale Senior High, a Hillsborough County public school in Valrico.
Images from the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office show Ackett’s cameras, hidden in cardboard boxes with holes cut out.
The State Attorney’s Office says 125 students and one staff member were recorded.
Teacher hid cameras at school
“There were 18 videos of me. And then, like, screenshots and snapshots,” said Ashman. “I was completely nude. Because it was a fashion design class. So, we literally sewed our own clothes and made clothing. And he had a ‘fitting room’ –it was, like, the storage closet in a teacher’s classroom – that everybody went in there to try on their pieces, make sure it was fitting… I would alter all of my swimsuits – so, that was all in there of me trying on all of my swimsuits. All of my assignments. Stuff like that. I even changed in there for cheer practice. So, as far as that, completely changing from regular bra to sports bra, shorts, all of that,” said Ashman.
Thanks in part to the bravery of students, like Ashman, who worked with law enforcement and spoke out in court, Ackett was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
A Growing Problem: Hidden Cameras Are Being Found Around The Tampa Bay Region
Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office data from the past five years show the number of people charged with video voyeurism doubled between 2019 and 2020:
- 2017: 8
- 2018: 6
- 2019: 7
- 2020: 14
- 2021: 10
Data from the State Attorney’s Office in the 10th Judicial Circuit – which covers Polk, Highlands and Hardee Counties – shows the number of video voyeurism charges in those counties increased 50 percent between 2020 and 2021:
- 2017: 6
- 2018: 7
- 2019: 4
- 2020: 8
- 2021: 12
“People are bored and weird,” said Matt Aubin, a cyber intelligence specialist at Southern Recon Agency.
It’s his job to find hidden cameras – and business is good.
Aubin said he gets 3 to 10 calls from people concerned about hidden cameras every day.
“Honestly, I think it’s the availability of high-quality equipment at really, really, really cheap prices,” said Aubin. “You said that they doubled, but that’s just the ones that they actually caught and the ones that were reported. We work a lot of cases to where our clients don’t want that information reported.”
In 2017, vacationers found hidden cameras disguised as smoke detectors in a Longboat Key condo they rented on Airbnb.
In 2018, police arrested a man they say used a hidden camera to secretly record two people in a Clearwater Anytime Fitness bathroom.
That same year, a maintenance worker was accused of hiding cameras above the ceiling tiles in two restrooms at a Pinellas Park office building.
In 2019, police arrested a man after a woman caught him recording her on his phone under a changing room door at a Tampa Target.
On Valentine’s Day in 2021, a customer at a Lakeland Circle K found an iPhone in an envelope hidden under the sink while she was in the restroom. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested a Circle K employee.
In May 2021, an 8th grade girl at Suncoast Academy in Sarasota found an Apple iPod Touch in a portable bathroom pointed at the toilet and recording, according to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office says a boy admitted the device belonged to him.
Protect Yourself: How to Spot a Hidden Camera
Spot the Hidden Cameras
We put six hidden cameras in a kitchen and asked Matt Aubin to walk us through how to find them without any special equipment.
“As I’m walking in, I see that hook over there – which, these are actually really commonly used to have cameras in them,” said Aubin, finding a camera disguised inside a white plastic hook on a door right away.
“Another thing I often look for are unused electronics,” he said, finding another hidden camera plugged into a nearby outlet. “This standard AC/DC adapter has a camera lens right here. It really also has no business being here without a cord or something that’s connected to it.”
Then, Aubin zeroed in on a camera disguised as a digital clock.
“I’ve also noticed we’ve got two basically clock radios in here. This one appears to have a camera right here in the middle of it,” he said. “This makes five clocks in this kitchen. You already have three of them built in. Unless you’re just super obsessed with time for some reason, you don’t need that many. So, it causes suspicion to go looking for those.”
The second digital clock was also a hidden camera.
So was the adapter that the second clock was plugged into.
“Right in the middle, if you just look and see [the lens] above that,” said Aubin.
Then he turned his sights to a camera disguised as a smoke detector, similar to the one found in a Longboat Key condo rental in 2017.
“It does appear to have a camera lens within it,” said Aubin, pulling it off the wall. “When you open it up, it doesn’t have the typical components of a smoke detector within it. When you look at it, it’s actually got spots for SD cards and other memory. Well, you typically aren’t going to need a USB-C charger or an SD card in a normal smoke detector…Most people have changed smoke detector batteries before, so you know what you’re looking at if you look inside one, as to whether something looks a little bit off… Any smoke detector that I’ve seen has a test button on it. This one doesn’t…And it’s not a name brand.”
Aubin recommends unplugging and removing anything you’re not sure about.
“You’re really just looking for anomalies that don’t add up and then just giving them a little bit of a closer look,” he said.
Ashman said she has a message for people who think being recorded on a hidden camera couldn’t happen to them.
“It’s hard because, beforehand, that was never a thought that ever went through my head in a dressing room, at a store, at a mall. Never once did I think of something like that. I just feel like people don’t really think like that unless it has happened to them – because, now, it’s something I think about anywhere I go. So, it can happen. And it’ll happen in a circumstance where you least expect it,” said Ashman.
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