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Spy cameras help Peeping Toms go on the prowl

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Published : 2012-07-09 20:20
Updated : 2012-07-11 09:42

A 31-year-old middle school teacher has been convicted of sexual harassment for using his mobile phone to record about 240 women largely in the school and on subways for more than two years.

He was caught secretly photographing a woman under her skirt on the stairs of a Seoul subway station. Police found more than 500 indecent video files saved on his memory card. Victims included students, parents and even female teachers he knows well.

The teacher was dismissed from his post immediately. In May, he received a suspended sentence of 10 months in prison and 40 hours of education on sexual violations.

The incident shocked his colleagues and students, who never thought he was a pervert. Normal in appearance and everyday life, he told investigators that he was driven simply by curiosity.

Fast-developing technology has enabled spy cameras to be installed inside phones, wristwatches, neckties, belts, bags, shoes, pens and even cigarette lighters.
Police in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, confiscated on Monday video recorders installed in a lighter (top photo) and a shoe from a man, who used them to secretly photograph women.(Yonhap News)

These gadgets enable voyeurs to act on their sexual urges. Thriving markets online for those images give the criminals a chance to earn money from them.

Light punishment, lack of regulation and legal loopholes are blamed for the rise of Peeping Toms with covert cameras.

In May, a man in his 40s was indicted for covertly filming 221 women in eight years. The offender identified by his surname Kang made a tiny hole in his shoe and hid a micro-camera inside it, later posting the photos and video clips on a website. He was not detained.

“It is scary,” said Shin Soo-jeong, a 34-year-old woman. “After I heard about the criminal method of hiding a camera inside shoes, I am always wary of men around me on the subway when I wear a skirt.”

Restrooms and public baths have long been easy targets for rigging cameras up on the ceiling and wall. Sophisticated technologies make the devices increasingly hard to detect and produce photos of higher resolution.

A 43-year-old coffee shop owner installed an automobile black box camera inside the restroom last year. The motion-sensing camera recorded over 900 people. He was indicted earlier this year.

“Snapping shots of female body parts belongs to a type of sexual perversion in psychology,” said Lim Joon-tae, a professor of police administration department at Dongguk University.

“Those who are mostly men in the category of voyeurism satisfy their sexual desire by collecting underwear or other belongings of females about whom they fantasize,” he said.

The offenders are likely to be introverted.

“Lacking confidence, they think they are unattractive to women. And they feel more thrilled and ecstatic from such abnormal behaviors than having an actual interaction,” said Gong Jung-sik, a professor at criminal psychology department of Kyunggi University.

As voyeurism is very addictive, they are highly likely to repeat offenses.

The coffee shop owner had been fined in 2005 and given a suspended sentence in 2008 for similar sexual crimes.

“When they succeed once, they feel enraptured. They tend to dig a deeper hole and look for a new target,” Gong said.

Sexual crimes using the mobile phones have been increasing dramatically. The number has jumped fivefold from 231 in 2004 to 1,054 in 2010, according to the National Police Agency. Overall sexual crimes increased 10-fold from 2002 to around 20,000 cased in 2010, meaning around 55 people, mostly women, fell victim per day.

As technology develops, more sophisticated and subtle devices are manipulated for peeping.

Devices such as wristwatches equipped with a micro camera and a pen-type camera can be bought easily both online and offline. Some of them have an infrared camera that allows video recording in the dark. They cost around 200,000 won ($175) to 400,000 won.

At one hidden camera store in Busan, which runs three other stores in Daegu and Seoul, they sell five gadgets a day, adding up to 150 a month.

“We are almost out of stock. They are selling like hot cakes around this summer season. The brand new glasses-type camera is the most popular these days,” said the owner who wished to be unnamed.

Police data shows that these sexual crimes occur more frequently in the summer season. In 2010 around 6,400 cases were reported from June to August, which is 30 percent more than those that occurred from December to February.

Legal loopholes are blamed on the increase of such crimes. It is not illegal to sell spy cams and there are no regulations currently to curb the misuse of the high-tech equipment.

For example, the government recommends smartphone makers to have their devices play a shutter sound automatically when taking a photo or recording a video. However, it is not mandatory and the function has been rendered almost useless by applications that mute the sound. Some apps even show a blank screen when taking pictures or the original background images of their phones.

The current law states that those who take pictures of others’ body parts without consent can be jailed for up to five years and be fined with 10 million won ($8,700). However, in most cases if the violators are a first-time offender, express remorse and are not considered to be a danger to society, they are usually not detained and just fined with much less than 10 million won.

“Considering the suffering that victims experience, the law is not strong enough to make the Peeping Toms realize that they are committing serious crimes,” Lee Sang-hyun, an emeritus professor at police administration of Dongguk University.

Not only sexual gratification, but chances to sell the images online and earn a considerable amount of easy money also motivate the criminals.

“They take those pictures for their own sexual pleasure, but at the same time they do it because they can make money. High unemployment could be linked to the pervert behavior,” the professor said.

Since the crime is committed most of the time without victims’ notice, it is not easy to catch the criminals.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office analyzed 100 crimes in which cameras were used. The results showed 70 victims did not realize they were the targets of the crimes.

Experts recommend if one feels strange then the person should warn the suspect directly.

“Avoiding or ignoring the situation gives more pleasure and lets criminals do the same thing or even more perverted things next time. And asking for help by pointing out a certain person around themselves is important,” Gong said.

Around 80 males in their 20s and 30s were held accountable for the criminal cases in the analysis. The majority of the perpetrators were office workers and students.

Around 80 victims, most of whom were in their 20s, wore either a short skirt or short dress.

“Warning signs should be put on the subway or public places where people crowd. Separate cars only for females and males on the subway can be seriously considered,” said Kim Jin-suk, director of the female and juvenile victims department of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

More frequent surveillance in and around blind spots is required, too.

“There should be more security measures like frequent patrols by policewomen in changing rooms or women’s restrooms,” Kim said.

But enforcing stricter laws cannot be a cure-all, according to other experts. They say it is important to make the violators realize voyeurism is a mental illness, which is curable with proper treatments and medicines.

“Helping them recognize a sense of guilt and sympathize with the victims, along with drug therapies can correct their behavior,” Gong said. 


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By Kim Young-won (wone0102@heraldcorp.com)