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Bugs on a Budget: Inexpensive Surveillance

Gordon Liddy dreamt up an elaborate scheme for bugging the Democratic National Headquarters. Included were such things as a type of UHF bug that required an O-scope for the listeners to find, and other bugs that got power thru paint-on electrical connectors.He was also financed out of a slush fund controlled by the most powerful men in the nation.

I’m not that lucky. My money comes from a “Blue” collar job, so spending $5k on a bug is laughable.Still, not getting the information I need because I couldn’t find any appropriate devices is just as silly. With a small bit of skill, you can build a reliable intelligence collecting system for about $250.


If it’s important or your targets are just paranoid, forget about phone taps. They may set up a meeting place on the line and that is about it. Besides, you can do a huge amount of random eavesdropping with a live collection system. You’ll need a good cardioid mike element, amplifier, and set of headphones.The most efficient way to go is to purchase a Hunter’s or Bionic Ear (See the Sources section at the end for locations). They run from $50 to $90. Everything is included in a package that looks a lot like a metal police flashlight. But to narror the collection angle, a parabolic dish is essential. Don’t get the one available with the Ear, it’s small and you’ll look dumb using it.Instead, but ETCO’s 18″ dish for about $35. Bend 3 heavy wires (e.g. welding rods) to grip the dish edge and syspend the Ear in the center. I used a hose clamp to secure it. Rubber bands link he support rods at te rear of the dish. Note: the focus is at a point intersected by the plane of the dish and a line extending out from the plastic “pip” in te center. Since the dish is transparent and the amp faces the target, the setup isn’t too conspicuous from a distance. The regular commercial reflector is black and quite obvious when in use.

How good is the system? My hearing is below par and I was able to understand whispers at 30m. The range you get may differ. In summer, crickets will drown out a lot. Traffic and overhead jets can also do nasty things. Oh yes, there’s an automatic cutoff so if the target coughs, you won’t have to pick up your eardrums from the ground.


Sometimes this is all you need, but mostly it complements the audio.Forget the 17×80 monster binoculars you saw in Soldier of Fortune. If a gnat on your arm farts, the scene will jump.Instead save a lot of money and get one or two more suitable pieces of equipment. One is a good pair of 7×50 binoculars. Buy from a wholesale place in Shotgun News and save big. These can be used well at night because of their large objective size. Some like a zoom feature, but I find it raises price and at these powers isn’t needed.

Personally, I like to get further away and stay stationary for as long as possible. Of course the parabolic setup is no good for audio at such a range (100 to 300m).Oddly, I’ve never felt handicapped by not being able to hear the action. You’d be surprised what lipreading and nonverbal cues you can pick up with a little practice. I use a 20-60x60mm. spotting scope. It comes mounted on a tripod for flat surface use, but I find a photographers C-clamp tripod is handier for using on car windows. In daylight nothing can come close to this system. It’s less than 1/2m long and at 60x it’s actually easy to reas newspaper headlines at 1Km or so. After all, these things were meant to spor bullet holes in targets at up to 500m and the cheapest low power spotter will do that with no problem. Just how much is 60x ? Well, most rifle scopes are 4x, binoculars are typically 7x, and the classic sniper scopes (Unertl and Leatherwood) are only 10x. Just look through one at a sporting goods store and you’ll see what a deal these are. Astronomy-type telescopes usually are too big, show an upside-down image, and have too much magnification for their objective size, making the view too dark.

In fact, at night the spotter is a bit dim even at only 20x.Nothing’s perfect.


Here’s the area most people immediately go for and sometimes get suckered real bad.Worst are “Law Enforcement Supply” places. Some sell to anyone with a letterhead. For the money they charge, it actually makes no difference who you are; besides it’s YOU who will get nailed for impersonating a cop if THEY decide to turn you in. One of these joints advertises in Soldier of Fortune and chagres $10 for their catalog. Its full of neat shit, all at least 5x over what anyone else could even think of charging.ETCO, on the other hand, sells lots of transmitters for “wireless mikes”. They also sell cheap mike elements. Hmmm. For $25 you can build a workable unit. Nothing Harry Call would be caught using, but usable nonetheless.Those little wireless mikes you see in the backs of magazines shown next to a paper clip are really quite good, but make sure they use the Mercury batteries. Even Alkalines will crap out after a few hours of constant transmitting.

Those and most inexpensive transmitters work in the Commercial FM Band. The good news is that you don’t need a VHF receiver to pick them up, a regular FM set does fine.Unfortunately, the same goes for the target. The best way out is to find a station at either end of the band (88 or 108) that the target isn’t likely to listen to. In St. Louis it’s KMJM at 107.7, an all Black station (assuming the target is a WASPish businessman or a rocker) . Set your bug to transmit on top of the station, and get in REAL CLOSE with your receiver. Since it’s at the end of tha dial, he/she isn’t likely to tune past it and get a jolt of audio feedback.

Finally, a bit of common sense. Wireless equipment should not take up a large portion of your budget. It’s hard to place, risky to maintain, and will be destroyed if found. Also, the cops sort of look down on this sort of thing to the tune of Federal time. Watergate did a lot to influence that. Don’t be a putz and try to break in a place to recover a $40 transmitter.Consider them disposable and you may stay free.


Buy a Voice-activated (VOX) microcassette. It’ll free you up for more important stuff than listening to silence or irrelevant bullshit. Especially with transmitters, a lot of time is just wasted. Live monitoring is fun…for fifteen minutes. A good unit is the Panasonic RN 109A at about $50. It’ll record 1 hour per side at low speed. With the VOX on, that’s an hour of solid sound. Use one on the parabolic dish, too. Replay through your stereo and use the equalizer or tone controls to sharpen up the stuff you may have missed the first time.

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