Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Spy vs. Spy

By Jim Hanas

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  I arrived a little early for my appointment with Michael Higginbotham, general manager of the new Counter Spy Shop in Oak Court Mall. He was in a meeting, according to the affably crusty Air Force vet manning the counter, who said he didn’t know when he’d be done.

Didn’t know? At a store specializing in “truth phones” and mini-cams tucked secretly into neckties? Couldn’t he find out?

“We have a way of doing that,” he promised before putting me at ease by pointing out the big white teddy bear propped in the window that was videotaping my every movement.

Said movements were these: milling around, checking out the tasers and promotional T-shirts and books that are on display in the front of the store, on the near side of the velvet rope that cordons off the casual window-shopper from the hardcore spy gear. There were books about how to spy on your spouse and about how to gain “personal privacy through a new identity.” There was one called Counterbomb and another called Methods of Disguise. There were several, like How Big Brother Investigates You, that set up what seems to be the necessary premise of any “counterspy” shop, that is, that spying is already going on and you better get down to countering it.

It was working. I anxiously waited for Higginbotham to appear and usher me, I was sure, like James Bond’s faithful Q into some back room where we would take turns blowing up mannequins with rounds from our rocket-launching cummerbunds. Oh, how I hoped he would be British.

He isn’t. A Memphian of some 20 years, Higginbotham has an ultra-businesslike manner developed through his background in sales, marketing, and corporate security.

In a backroom, without a deadly cummerbund or waxen insurgent in sight, we sit down to talk. I take out my tape recorder and ask if taping our conversation will be redundant. He assures me I am the only one taping before boasting:

“We have a device that would let me know that you’re actually recording me and I didn’t know it,” he says.

The Counter Spy Shop opened in Oak Court the day after Thanksgiving. Owned by the ominous-sounding Millennium Group, Inc., and managed by Higginbotham, the store holds an exclusive license to deal in products developed by CCS International, the London-based company that operates Counter Spy Shops there and in cities from New York to Milan.

“Our market research did indicate that, yes, there absolutely is a security problem in Memphis in terms of the overall crime statistics, and also given the fact that our market research indicated that there wasn’t any one particular company that offered the complete line of services that we are offering,” Higginbotham says of the decision to open the store here in Memphis.

To that end, the Counter Spy Shop offers a range of services – such as sweeping areas for “bugs” – and its custom product showroom features an array of gadgets, from a photo-taser that can stun an attacker with a blinding flash of light to the “truth phone,” which supposedly lets you know if the person on the other end of the line is lying. “One of our more popular items,” says Higginbotham; something to think about the next time you call in sick. There are also briefcases fitted with all the gear needed to monitor an entire phone system, an array of night-vision goggles, and video cameras disguised as everything from houseplants to wristwatches.

“Potentially, everybody that walks in our door has a need, or has a problem, whether that problem is a loss of their privacy or whether that involves a loss of their property, or the loss of information. Let’s face it, we live in the ‘Information Age.’ We have systems that are designed to protect the loss of information,” Higginbotham explains. “Our function is strictly counterspy. We’re here to help that person that thinks he has an information leak.”

For example, he explains, a company could spend a billion dollars developing a product, but it does them no good if it falls into the hands of a competitor.

“So, would it not stand to reason that you as a company would want to protect that?” Higginbotham asks.

Sure. But I’ve seen Jerry Springer. I have my own suspicions.

“How many people do you think buy these to surreptitiously tape themselves having sex?” I ask, pointing to a VCR that doubles as a spy-cam.

Flustered, Higginbotham resorts to some good old, low-tech counterespionage. He motions to the tape recorder.

“That is off, isn’t it?” he asks.


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