Are fake video cameras inexpensive solutions or lawsuits waiting to happen?

By Ron Lander, CPP

 While touring your campus, you stop by the student store and suddenly notice a dozen cameras spattered along the walls of the facility. You rack your brain to figure out if your communications center is monitoring and recording them, and then it hits you. These are FAKE cameras. Further, you notice a large sign by the front door that reads, “Warning: Video Monitoring In Progress.”

You ask the manager where he got the cameras. He says he was having a shoplifting problem. “Then I found these cameras on the Internet. I got the whole package for less than $100,” he excitedly reports, proud of the fact he has solved a big problem at a small price.

Or has he?

Let’s take this scenario a little further. The next day, two ruthless thugs rob the store. They not only take several hundred dollars, but also severely injure an employee and a student. The entire incident was within “view” of these “cameras.” When the detectives ask for the videotape, the manager tells them that the cameras are fakes. So you lost an opportunity to get video identification of the perpetrators.

Three months later, you and the school are sued on behalf of the injured employee and student. In the interrogatories, you are required to provide “all audio and video relative to the incident.” The school then has to admit the cameras were fakes and the signs misleading. Not a very good way to start off a lawsuit.

Both the employee and student tell their attorneys they felt safer in the store because “they have video cameras” and “there is a sign saying so.” As the case unfolds, it will only get worse.

 Cheap solution?

 Security professionals are often asked to provide “dummy” cameras for clients or potential clients. This is why you can visit numerous sites with video surveillance “coverage” that amounts to a variety of dummy cameras in all shapes and forms.

If you enter “dummy cameras” on an Internet search engine, you will find no fewer than 45 Web sites that offer dummy cameras for as low as $4.99!

One ad reads: “Great price. Looks like the real thing -- fools everybody! Built-in motion detector activates the motorized swivel action and blinking red light. To order a Simulated Security Camera, enter a quantity in the box below and click the ‘Add to Shopping Cart’ button.

* 1 for $4.99

* 24 for $99.99

* Requires 2 AA Batteries.

* Add 2 AA Batteries $2.99.”

It does not take a lot of legal expertise to realize that such cheap dummy cameras and accompanying misleading signs spell trouble for the property owners and management.

Allen Pepper of the law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, LLP, says, “The concept isn't too much different than other landlord liability cases. If the cameras don't work [or are fake] and tenants [and visitors] of the property do believe them to be real, there could be an issue of ‘reliance.’

“If the tenants rely on the fact that cameras are present in either entering into a lease in the first place or it influences their decisions regarding their use of the premises [shopper, student or visitor], the failure to disclose that they are dummy cameras might give rise to liability. It gives a ‘false sense of security.’

“While dummy cameras might be an aid as a deterrent,” Pepper says, “their  use should be carefully considered, depending upon the type of application, location, etc.”

 Just imagine the above scenario being played out in a courtroom: “Please explain to the jury why you bought 12 $4.99 cameras to ‘protect’ our client and other employees and visitors to the store. … Is that all you thought their safety was worth?”

Worse yet, imagine the plaintiff’s attorney unveiling this sign in larger-than-life-size letters: “Great price. Looks like the real thing -- fools everybody!”

This case would probably not even get to trial. The school would have to settle for many times the value of an actual video surveillance system.

 One exception

 There is one situation, however, when the installation of a dummy camera might be acceptable. If  a facility has the need for extensive video coverage and the budget will allow for only a limited number of cameras, incorporating a few fake cameras that match the others is acceptable.

However, it is recommended that there be a written policy regarding the use of the “dummy” camera(s) and that these “dummies” be capable of being moved (regularly, or if a situation calls for a deterrent). There should also be a log that tracks the use of the “dummy” camera(s). As a ballpark figure, the number of cameras should not be more than 20 percent of the overall camera installation, and you should have a documented request to complete the camera installation in another budget period, with all cameras being real.

Also, be careful when incorporating a “video monitoring” sign. If you don’t have someone regularly watching a monitor, don’t use a sign that indicates “monitoring in progress.” If you are only recording, use this fact in a sign.

Believe it or not, there are CCTV installations with signs that read “Video Not Being Recorded.”  Why would you go through the trouble and expense of using video without recording it?

When it comes to campuses that have more than two monitors and 16 cameras, don’t be lured into the false impression that your console operators are effectively monitoring all cameras. Experts differ on the effective ratio of cameras to operators. Some factors are other duties, phone traffic, overall traffic on the monitors and time on the shift. You can tell just by observing the operator that effective monitoring of all cameras by one operator is impossible.


 The use of digital video in lieu of videotape has changed the security industry. It is no longer “closed circuit.” Because of the dynamics of this new era in surveillance, a more appropriate name is Dynamic Video Surveillance System, or DVSS.

With most new digital systems, virtually anyone with a computer network connection can view video live or retrieve archived video. Also, others who previously did not have the capability to view video can “tune into” a surveillance system. This type of monitoring and video review can be accomplished from somewhere else on the campus, or from anywhere in the world.

Alarm verification, attendance tracking, marketing and facilities management are just a few areas that this new technology is touching. Furthermore, the nightmare of videotape storage, video recorders breaking down, and operators forgetting to change a tape or press the “REC” button is eliminated. Some systems can effectively record more than a month of activity on as many as 16 cameras, per system.

Be careful of the technology, though. Don’t be overwhelmed by the first vendor that shows you streaming video of your site over the Internet. More than 100 companies have products that are referred to as “digital video.”

Whether you are upgrading a few “dummy” cameras or replacing an entire video surveillance system, be sure to conduct research to help you make an informed decision on which vendor to choose.

 Ron Lander owns the security consulting firm Ultrasafe Security Specialists (, is a Certified Protection Professional and chairman of the Inland Empire Chapter of ASIS International. He can be contacted at


 Monitoring Video

 When it comes to monitoring video from surveillance cameras, experts differ on the effective ratio of cameras to console operators. Among the factors to consider:

* Operators’ other duties.

* Phone traffic.

* Amount of traffic on the monitors.

* Time on the shift.

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