Corporate espionage is rising as the economy falters and new spying gadgets hit the market, according to Hong Kong-based security consultants. New 'ghost' mobile phones costing US$3,000 (HK$23,300) have emerged over the past six months. They can be silently activated from afar to work as listening devices, or programmed to transmit calls secretly, not only to the recipient but to an eavesdropper as well. Meanwhile, 'government-level' bugs have become widely available via Eastern Europe and the Middle East over the past two years, while Internet computer 'spyware' is also becoming more sophisticated. Ben Pasco, the managing director of counter-espionage firm PGI Consultants, said the economic downturn had reduced employees' loyalty amid pay cuts and redundancy fears, making them more willing to act as spies. He said some were recruited to provide information or place recording devices, while others did it on their own initiative to improve their value to other employers. However, he said new employers often sacked them after they had provided the information. Mr Pasco added that firms under pressure to cut spending sometimes resorted to spying on competitors as it could be cheaper to steal research than to do their own. 'We are getting busier,' he said. 'If there was a graph [of corporate espionage] it would be exponential.' Mr Pasco said security firms were often only called in when management suspected an information leak, but he said his firm found spy equipment in 20 to 25 per cent of offices it inspected. He refused to comment on how rates of corporate espionage in Hong Kong compared with other parts of Asia in which the company worked, including China, Malaysia, India, the Philippines and Thailand. Bradley Allan, Pinkerton's director of operations in Hong Kong, said the general industry belief was that corporate spying was rising, but that no one really knew how common it was. His firm rarely sees cases of bugging, but advises precautionary measures such as shredding sensitive documents before disposal, conducting background checks on employees, and breaking sensitive processes down so few people know them in their entirety. Mr Pasco said his firm found five bugs in one office alone. 'Our equipment was going crazy,' he said, warning that the devices could come in the form of 'corporate gifts' such as calculators and pens, or disguised as screw heads. Bugs can also be hidden in light switches, built into concrete walls, or placed in air-conditioning vents. In some cases, companies choose to leave bugs in place to spread disinformation. Mr Pasco said about 80 per cent of bugs were sold for personal use, with the remainder going to the corporate world and private investigators. Simple bugs being sold as 'educational' kits are available for as little as $39 in electronics shops, while 'government-level' kits cost as much as $90,000. By law, companies are only allowed to sell bugging equipment to law-enforcement agencies, but anyone can buy counter-intelligence equipment, which includes monitoring devices, computer searches and even cameras similar to endoscopes.