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Tripp Tapings Help Boost Sale Of High-Tech Recording Units

Driven by public's desire to know who's saying what to whom, the demand for surveillance gadgets is high.

Michael Trother is worried. The northern Virginia lawyer spends hours on the phone each day, doing business, and talking to friends and acquaintances.

But the frenzy over wire tapping and phone recording that has consumed the nation's capital in recent weeks has spurred him to begin recording many of his own conversations - and just last week he bought a device that will alert him if someone is recording his conversations.

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"That may seem a bit paranoid," he says, "Maybe I am, but why should I take a chance. These two ladies [Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp] were good friends and look what happened."

Mr. Trother is not alone in his concern. Nor is he alone in seeking a technological solution. The market for surveillance devices has risen dramatically over the past few years, and many in the trade say high profile cases have helped fuel the boom.

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The sale of hidden "nanny-cam" video cameras ballooned after the Louise Woodward case late last year and the recent swirl of news surrounding Ms. Tripp's taping of her conversations with Ms. Lewinsky is adding new impetus to the sale of audio recording devices.

"It's great advertising for us," says Don Ugent, co-owner of Buy Right Distributors, which sells surveillance equipment over the Internet. "People see how easy it is to do and they say: 'Wow, I could do that - or someone could do that to me.'"

Bob Crowley, who owns the Spy Outlet surveillance equipment shop in Buffalo, N.Y., has seen significant sales growth in each of the past eight years, but the Woodward case and the Lewinsky tapings have added a new surge to his bottom line.

"We see an immediate blip in phone calls following this kind of media play," Mr. Crowley says. "We did less advertising this year than last and still had the biggest increase in sales that I can remember."

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The growth in surveillance equipment sales has been bolstered in part by executives and lawyers interested in recording their calls and meetings in order to have an indisputable record of what was said.

But the sales of surveillance equipment, mainly listening devices like microcassette recorders, isn't confined to the business world. Parents are buying equipment to check up on their kids, suspicious spouses check up on each other, and workers are using it to try to prove sexual harassment or management malfeasance.

Counter-surveillance growth

But the growth industry of the future, says Heath Chilcoate, a senior account executive at the Counter Spy Shop in Washington may be in counter-surveillance equipment. Right now, detection technology is fairly new and expensive. Prices range from about $1,000 for recording detectors to tens of thousands of dollars for more sophisticated equipment. But, Mr. Chilcoate says prices will come down as demand forces greater production.

"I think many people don't know that detection equipment is available," he says. "As that becomes better known, we expect the market to go through the roof - and soon, especially with all these stories coming out now."

The laws governing the recording of personal conversations are fairly lenient, at least if the person doing the recording is a participant in the conversation.

The federal statute (Title 3 of the Electronic Surveillance Control Act) says that if you're directly involved in a conversation you may record it without informing the other participants. What's illegal is recording others' conversations.

"The courts long ago said that you have no reasonable expectation that anyone who you're dealing with, that you know you're communicating with, is not going to turn around and tell the world what you said," says Edwin Steir, a former federal and New Jersey state prosecutor, now in private practice.

Although most states follow the federal law, a few have tougher two-party consent laws on the books. For example, in Maryland, where Tripp recorded her conversations with Lewinsky, both parties to the conversation need to consent to the recording. No state may have a law more liberal than the federal statute.

While the events in the nation's capital can only boost his sales, Mr. Ugent says, "My mother always said if you never say anything you don't want to see in The New York Times tomorrow, you'll never regret what you said."

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