Utah attorneys and private investigators may be the primary purchasers of illegal bugging devices in the Salt Lake area, according to court records unsealed last week.
A three-year, multistate investigation of what Customs agents call an international smuggling operation resulted in confiscation Wednesday of more than two dozen high-tech receivers and transmitters from the Spy Factory in Salt Lake City and one other retail outlet in the valley.Ten Americans and three Japanese were charged with smuggling after Customs agents across the United States raided 40 spy equipment stores in 24 cities. They also set up phony spy equipment businesses to gather evidence on the operation.
Local Customs agents focused on the Spy Factory, 309 S. Main, after attending a briefing in New York City where they learned that the company's headquarters had shipped boxes of illegal bugging devices to the store, according to court records.
Three days after the briefing, special agent Larry Burnett entered the downtown shop to investigate. A man who identified himself as the manager's friend helped the undercover agent.
"(The friend) stated that most of the customers for small, easily secreted transmitters and telephone intercepts were local attorneys and private investigators," Burnett's affidavit says. "He stated that the less expensive, more bulky equipment was usually bought by individuals spying on family members."
The store manager, five days later, demonstrated for Burnett three illegal gadgets and said he sold some sort of intercept device to someone at least every week.
"(The manager) verified that the equipment being discussed mostly had been sold to local attorneys and private investigators," the affidavit states.
Some of the seized items, including those in stock at the Salt Lake store, were as sophisticated as those used by government agencies like the FBI, Burnett said. The items included tiny monitoring devices powered by the very phone line they tap and miniature transmitters hidden in a ballpoint pen or desk calculator.
Federal law prohibits the import, sale or even advertising of eavesdropping devices for private use.
"These electronics are very hard to detect and we just want them off the streets," Burnett said. Across the nation, the bugs and taps have been used for corporate espionage, kidnapping and drug dealing.
Utah Bar Association President Paul Moxely said he isn't aware of any local attorneys possessing the devices.
"There's no knowledge or information beyond the word of store employees that any lawyers have any of these items . . . if they do, I'd be really surprised to hear it," Moxely said.
However, Burnett says his office has store receipts identifying some buyers. He did not know whether any were attorneys or investigators and could not say exactly how many gadgets had been sold since the shop opened in 1991.
"All of that is in records we haven't reviewed yet."
He said agents will be contacting identified buyers and telling them they are in violation of federal law. If they've been conducting illegal surveillance, they could face criminal charges.
None of the employees of Spy Factory or the other outlet, which voluntarily surrendered its stock of illegal devices, will be charged with crimes, Burnett said.
A spokeswoman at Spy Factory headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, refused to comment when contacted by the Deseret News. The company's vice president is one of the 10 Americans facing smuggling allegations.