International Private Eye

An Indian spy-device baron goes global

From his Delhi offices, Parminder Singh handles both individual and wholesale orders for spy cameras and more. ishan marvel
01 March, 2015

AT ABOUT TWO IN THE AFTERNOON on 23 January, Parminder Singh received an email from a prospective client in Spain. From behind a desk in his office, a converted apartment above an inner lane of Delhi’s Patel Nagar market, he turned his computer screen around to let me see it. The client wanted to buy a “spy wallet”—a leather wallet with a tiny camera planted inside. Singh was just the person for the job. He copied product and pricing details over from an old file, and shot off a reply.

Patel Nagar market is the unofficial capital of India’s burgeoning spy-device trade, and Singh, cheerful and middle-aged, is its most prominent figure. Singh’s company, Action India Home Products, offers GPS trackers, minute Bluetooth earpieces described as “exam cheating devices,” audio and video recorders of various sizes and shapes, and much more—and handles both individual and wholesale orders. Many of the dozens of smaller spy-device retailers in Patel Nagar told me they sourced their merchandise from Singh. Action India’s web team runs twenty-odd retail websites, and the company’s clients, Singh boasted, have included corporations such as Star, Reliance and ITC. Singh also enjoys a degree of personal fame—following a 2012 video sting that caught several domestic cricketers admitting to foul play, he was invited to demonstrate the latest spying technology on several television news shows. With his domestic empire secure, Singh is rapidly taking his business global.

“Most of the business is now done online,” Singh said. “The actual footfall is very less.” “Only yesterday we received one for Rs 2.5 lakhs,” his secretary volunteered. Singh handed me his phone, which rang constantly, to show a payment of almost $2,000 that had just landed in the company’s PayPal account. His biggest order so far was from the United States, for Rs 7 lakh. “Check if that Pakistan order has come through,” he called out to a member of his dozen-strong staff in an adjoining room. Stacks of boxed products crowded the office.

Singh started in the trade in 2000, when an acquaintance needed spying devices to help clear his name. When he couldn’t find anyone in India selling the necessary technology, Singh sensed an opportunity. He began importing products from Hong Kong, China, Israel and Japan. As a middleman, he has tie-ups with retailers across the world and can often fill international orders via suppliers based in clients’ home countries. “The network is growing,” he said. “This is why I have to make a lot of business trips.” He claimed to have travelled across the United States and through much of Europe and West Asia—many of Singh’s international clients are non-resident Indians in these regions—and said he regularly visits Afghanistan and Pakistan. Singh wouldn’t reveal his total revenues, but said international sales now easily outstrip domestic takings. A large part of this success is down to a shrewd online strategy—maintaining multiple websites to boost market share and traffic, and running a helpline, staffed around the clock, out of the Patel Nagar office.

One of Action India’s websites brags that the company is the “No. 1 spy products dealer in the world.” The claim is hard to prove, however, in the absence of global surveys of the trade. Singh seemed fond of grand claims; he said Action India has offices in London and Hong Kong, but none of the company’s websites specified a Hong Kong address, and the London phone number they listed remained unreachable.

Still, the orders keep coming, and Singh dreams of growth and diversification. He wants to start a full-fledged online store, selling “not just spy stuff, but like Flipkart”—the e-commerce giant. But this isn’t out of any pangs, moral or otherwise, about his current line of business. “That’s not our responsibility,” he said of the potential for misuse of his devices. “Outside gurudwaras people sell daggers and swords—it’s up to the buyer what he uses them for.” In the end, “it’s just business.”

As I left, I noticed an LCD television in a corner, showing me from four different angles in as many split screens.