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Two women Bulgarian students find hidden cameras in apartment near Westchase

Vanya Samokovareva, 22, left, and roommate Ralitsa Dzhambazova, 23, stand in front of a shower in their apartment where a camera was aimed.

Bay News 9

Vanya Samokovareva, 22, left, and roommate Ralitsa Dzhambazova, 23, stand in front of a shower in their apartment where a camera was aimed.

TAMPA — The tiny cameras were hidden in smoke detectors and motion sensors, placed in the bedrooms and bathrooms of a west Hillsborough apartment.

Late Monday, two Bulgarian women discovered the covert cameras in their apartment. And now the Bulgarian students are afraid their every move — from sleeping to showering — may have been broadcast on the Internet.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating and says detectives have recovered some equipment and are following several leads.

However, between Tuesday night — when a report about the episode appeared on Bay News 9 — and Wednesday morning when detectives returned, some of the electronic equipment was removed, said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.

The women didn't answer their door Wednesday, but in an interview Tuesday with Bay News 9 said their landlord has a key to the apartment.

The Sheriff's Office declined to name any suspects.

Vanya Samokovareva, 22, and Ralitsa Dzhambazova, 23, have lived in the apartment near Westchase for three months, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Dzhambazova, a student from Sofia, Bulgaria, said they both found an employer through Sky Travel, a Bulgarian company that helps students travel abroad for the summer to improve their English. The company finds students an employer and then obtains travel documents including visas for a $1,000 fee, Dzhambazova said.

Samokovareva said their employer sub-leased them the apartment. They did modeling in an ad campaign for a pizza place and a delivery business.

"We wore superhero costumes and things like that," Dzhambazova said.

That job ended, and both girls were able to find work at Wing House to continue to fund their summer abroad.

"We had to buy all the furniture," Dzhambazova said of the sparsely furnished apartment.

When they first moved into the apartment, the two women joked that the wired devices might be cameras, Dzhambazova said. But they believed for weeks that the devices truly were smoke detectors and security devices.

That belief was shattered when one of their former roommates, a man, took down one of the devices and entered the serial number in an online search. The results showed tiny cameras, just like the one in his hand.

"I was shocked," Dzhambazova told Bay News 9. "This is terrible. I never expected that this would happen to me and my friend."

Immediately, the group followed the wires to a locked closet and broke the lock. Inside, deputies say, they found an electronic box and something that appeared to be a WiFi device.

The Sheriff's Office is investigating where the images may have gone and aren't sure yet if they were displayed online or were sent to a remote location, McKinnon said. Investigators also will try to trace the cameras' ownership through serial numbers.

The women disabled the cameras. They say they plan to stay in the apartment through the end of the month and then move elsewhere.

Dzhambazova said they reported the incident to the international agency that arranged their trip and also to Sky Travel.

"Many students from Europe came for the summer to travel and improve their language. They're just students and somebody needs to protect them and to be responsible for them and check with the employers," she said. "I don't know how else to help students."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writers Robbyn Mitchell and Marissa Lang contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Two women Bulgarian students find hidden cameras in apartment near Westchase 07/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 8:15am]
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