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Snooping Joes get gadgets to spy

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But unlike that austere old scientist slapping 007's wrist every time he touches a flamethrower, Phil Coppola, manager of Spytown, encourages customers to tinker with his privacy-bending toys lining the wall of the Fresh Meadows store."We run the gambit here," he said, referring an array of products - from cameras that can withstand freezer temperatures for restaurant managers looking to nab steak-stealing kitchen staffers to burglar alarms with enunciator systems that give property owners creative rein on how to greet pool-hoppers and jewelry thieves.Before the store opened at 161-02 Union Turnpike in mid-April, Spytown was solely an online retailer, shipping out about 30,000 different items around the country from their warehouse down the block on 164th Street.But when company heads began noticing an increasing amount of customer foot traffic coming through their warehouse, they thought the image was reminiscent of shady, black-market dealings, Coppola said. So arrived the Radio Shack-like shop that Coppola said he hopes will eventually become a franchise. And as for the patronage, many seem more candid with Coppola than they are with a priest.One customer explained how he needed a way to record the questions during a municipal test so he could memorize them before taking it again. Coppola sold him a camera hidden in a necktie.A man walked in one day seeking a boombox camera to capture footage of a Hedonism festival.Another said he was looking for a clock-radio camera that was shower-proof.And then there are the paranoids."We get a lot of panicky ones always saying 'someone's cheating me' and wanting to catch them," Coppola said, sitting at his desk. "For them, I'll sell a digital recorder, but also refer them to a private investigator."Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities for busybodies and suspicious types, there are a few boundaries.It is against federal law, for example, to sell hidden cameras equipped with microphones (though that says nothing about buying them separately then installing them together, Coppola said.) And it's illegal to put them in places where privacy is implied, like bathrooms, bedrooms or under metal grates on sidewalks to look up women's skirts - an incident on Lexington Avenue that Coppola remembers reading about in the papers.But despite the sometimes hazy line between justified and obtrusive in the spy world, Coppola assured that Spytown has never met any legal wrangling.He cannot judge people's intentions, he said, only sell the best products at the best prices (which range from the $100,000 Sony and Panasonic digital items to the $50 it takes to alter your voice over the phone to sound like Darth Vader.)Indeed, sometimes the product is almost too good."This one's a bit tricky," Coppola said, turning a white metal speaker in his hands. "Even I've never been able to find the camera in this thing."Reach reporter Zach Patberg by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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