AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Travis County couple is suing two homeowners, alleging they were spying on the couple through an undisclosed camera in the bedroom of their vacation rental.

A civil lawsuit was filed Tuesday. The couple rented the vacation property in Comfort, Texas in August 2020.

The lawsuit alleges the camera recorded them undressing and in other “intimate and private moments.” Last November, Kendall County authorities filed charges against one homeowner for improper photography. Authorities confirmed on July 11 that the investigation is ongoing.

Jay Allee mugshot from 2021 arrest
Jay Allee mugshot from 2021 arrest

“These were cameras directed in the bedroom to capture elicit footage, and that’s what it did,” said Kristina Baehr of Just Well Law. She represents the plaintiffs, who are choosing to stay anonymous as John and Jane Doe.

Baehr said her clients didn’t find out about the cameras until months after their visit when local police contacted them. She said it triggered past trauma for one of her clients.

“Their first reaction was just shock and awe, but then also, it triggers all of these traumatic feelings that you have to go and address. And so, she is in an active therapy to recover from this incident,” Baehr said.

Surveillance policies

Vrbo told KXAN is has explicit rules for when and where a host can and cannot have security devices. KXAN looked into Airbnb’s rules, as well, and compared them:

  • Airbnb allows security devices in common spaces; Vrbo only allows them outside
  • Vrbo indicates noise monitoring devices are allowed inside, but “should measure only the sound level, and not record private conversations”
  • Both platforms say you can’t put devices in sleeping areas or bathrooms
  • Both say hosts have to tell guests about devices ahead of their stay

Laura Martinez does follow the above rules. She’s a host on both platforms, managing five properties in Austin and Canyon Lake through her company, The Key Rentals.

“I’ve always loved hospitality,” she said. “Reading the reviews, you know, they appreciate you lending them your space, and that is just gratification for me.”

She’s constantly trying to keep her guests happy and safe. That means taking security seriously.

She has a camera outside the front and back of the home to ensure guests are safe and following rules around noise, capacity and pets.

She also makes sure to disclose those cameras on her property listing pages.

“In case they feel unsafe or in case they have questions, which has never happened, but we have to make sure that the information is put out there,” Martinez said.

She knows not all hosts do that.

“I don’t know why they had an interior camera hidden. I don’t know why they did that, but ours is just for the purpose of the safety of our guests and neighbors, and everyone to stay happy,” Martinez said.

KXAN asked both Airbnb and Vrbo if they send anyone to check a property, ensuring hosts are following these rules. Both pointed us to their security device webpages but did not answer the question.

“We want to know why not? Why doesn’t Vrbo send somebody to each property to inspect?” said Baehr. SHe said her clients want change.

“What could they have done to prevent this? And are they going to do that in the future?” she said.

Spotting hidden cameras

These days, cameras are so small you can mask them in pretty much anything: smoke detectors, baby monitors, even USB charging plugs or wall clocks.

There are ways to spot hidden cameras.

One way is to point a bright light at an object you suspect. If the light hits the camera lens, you’re going to see a blueish reflection.

According to KXAN’s sister station, the arrest affidavit for the Comfort, Texas, case mentions another man who stayed at the same rental cabin nearly a year after John and Jane Doe.

That man said he googled “how to find hidden cameras” after the homeowner made suggestive comments.

According to the report, the victim said he found a device that looked like an AC/DC adapter facing the bed, noticed a reflection on the front and a blue light blinking on the side.

The man was staying with a woman who was already undressed in the room before the man discovered the device, and both left immediately, because they were worried they were being illegally recorded, according to the affidavit.

The report also stated investigators found several pictures of other adult males and females, clothed and/or partially undressed, naked and/or involved in sexual acts. It added those indicated there were probably five more victims of the invasive recording, besides the two victims who found the hidden device.