James Bond enthusiast opens spy gadget stores in Canada

Oct. 20, 2008
Woman turns 'hobby' into a business that specializes in audio/video surveillance

A couple of years ago, a waiter at a fine Toronto restaurant was being harassed and abused by his manager - but without any evidence, there wasn't really anything he could do about it.

So he dropped by an innocuous-looking Yonge St. storefront called Spytech, and asked for help.

After listening to his story, Spytech owner Ursula Lebana asked him for a necktie.

When he came back, she had outfitted his tie with a tiny video camera and microphone. The camera peeked through a hole in the tie no bigger than a pinprick, but provided a picture comparable with the cheaper echelon of camcorders.

It looked like a regular tie, wore like a regular tie and it moved like a regular tie. The waiter wore it to work; and after showing the restaurant's owner what it recorded, he stopped having problems with his manager.

Spytech, which now has branches in Ottawa and London, is a wholesale and retail store specializing is video and audio surveillance. It owes its existence to the fact that when Lebana first came to Canada from what was then West Germany in 1965, she was an au pair.

She had the good fortune to be employed by the president of United Artists Canada, who showed feature films at parties in his backyard. The one that stuck with her was Goldfinger - the third and, many say, best of the James Bond spy films. It started her fascination with spy gadgets, and she still loves to watch it now.

In 1991, when she had raised enough money to start her own business, she knew she wanted to go into spy gear.

"All my friends who had businesses, their employees were stealing from them," she said. "And all my friends who had kids had nannies they didn't trust."

It was natural, then, for her to supply them with hidden cameras and microphones to catch their crooks.

But while Spytech does a lot of business with retailers, suspicious parents, movie prop buyers, investigative reporters, private investigators and even the military, one of her primary revenue streams comes from people looking to beef up their home security.

Lebana offers a number of items that can help foil burglars - with a little bit of James Bond-style panache.

One of them appears to be a rather ordinary-looking phone. It does make calls, but it also has a motion detector. When it senses motion anywhere around it, it calls a preprogrammed number.

"You can put it in your home, but most people put them in their cottages," said Lebana. "And if someone is in there when you aren't, it calls you - when that number shows up on your cell, you know someone is in your home."

The version that calls one preprogrammed number sells for $125, and other models that can call up to three numbers at once retail for a little bit more.

Similarly, Spytech can provide you with tiny - as in the size of a sugar cube - video cameras that can easily be hidden and can wirelessly transmit real-time video to your home or office computer PC via the Internet.

The picture is full-colour and fills a browser window and users can switch from camera to camera to get views from different angles or in different rooms.

"Not only do you know if and when someone has been in your house," said Lebana, "but you have photographic evidence of who they were and what they did."

If you need a little bit extra, Spytech has higher-resolution cameras, all-weather cameras and even infrared cameras that can "see" in the dark.

Although much of Lebana's business has an air of subterfuge and secrecy, nothing Spytech sells is illegal in Canada. She's never been in trouble with the law, and Toronto police actually hold much of what she sells in high esteem.

"A determined break-and-enter guy is going to get into your house or apartment, but when he gets in there, he knows he only has a few minutes to get the job done," said police crime prevention specialist Const. Joseph Smith. "The best way to prevent them from getting your valuables is to hide them in places a little more creative than under your mattress."

He suggested home safes "that look like household items, but have secret compartments."

Spytech has them in droves.

Lebana - who could pass for an ordinary grandmother, though she brings a bit more vigour and intensity to the role than most - is particularly proud of her water bottle. It looks like an ordinary plastic water bottle and it even has refillable water compartments sloshing around the bottom and the top. But it also has a lockable compartment under the label. It's big enough to conceal a roll of bills and perhaps some jewellery.

The bottles retail for $34.95 and Lebana says they are "very popular."

Less expensive options for home safes include very realistic-looking cans of Pringles potato chips - which rattle when shaken - Barbasol shaving cream and other popular household items.

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