Competition News

Congratulations to Jason from Bournemouth, England, who won the autumn free prize draw for a paperback copy of the thriller, Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.


A Potted History of the Assassin’s Trade

What would you buy with £15,000? A new car? Fit a conservatory, perhaps, or a new kitchen? Or how about hiring an assassin? That’s what a recent study from the University of Birmingham revealed was the average cost of hiring a hit man in Britain. They found quite a spread of charges, though, from a bargain £200 up to a staggering £100,000 for the most expensive (the 1994 Hertfordshire murder of Robert Magill).

The Distant Sniper

Not surprisingly, the study found that the favourite method of dispatch was to use a gun, but unlike the picture portrayed by films and novels, in most cases this is a handgun used in a public place, and not a sniper’s rifle from a distant roof.


The sniper rifle certainly does have its place, however, but that’s more on the modern battlefield than the streets of our “normal” cities. A bullet apparently coming from nowhere to suddenly kill the squaddie next to you is seriously unnerving, so snipers play a key role in destabilizing the enemy during war. And the distances involved can be amazing – a British soldier recently took the world record for a long distance sniper shot during the Afghanistan conflict, when he took out a Taliban gunman at a distance of 8,120 feet – that’s over a mile and a half!

The problem for the sniper in being that far away, of-course, is simply how long it takes the bullet to travel the distance.  Even at 3000 feet per second, a bullet can take well over two seconds to reach its target, in which time the intended victim could have moved. And the wind as well can send a bullet off course over that distance. That’s where the latest research by America’s DARPA comes in – enter the laser-guided sniper bullet with its tiny fins that allow it to alter direction during flight. The DARPA website has a video tracing the bullets’ flights, and it’s amazing to see how much they can alter direction to keep on track towards their victim (see for a simple overview).


But if you don’t have access to an expert sniper or even a modest handgun, there still seems to be plenty of alternative methods with which to bump off your opponent. Poison for instance has often been a favoured tool in the assassin’s armoury. It’s been in use from a few millennia BC right up to the current day, probably remaining popular because it allows the murderer to be elsewhere at the time of death.

Poison in a Teapot

The earliest application of poison was as a means to increase the effectiveness of thrown spears, where the weapon’s tip was used to administer a toxin such as tubocurarine chloride to a distant enemy. By the time we reach the Roman Empire, poisoning had developed into an art form. Nero is even said to have employed his own personal poisoner, who was frequently required to despatch Nero’s relatives with a dose of cyanide. The other clan famous for its adeptness with a vial of poison is, of-course, the 15th century Italian family, the Borgias, with its frequent use of cantarella, a compound historians believe was made from arsenic. The skill with arsenic positioning was to ensure the effect was not immediate and that the symptoms generated could have been caused by one of the many other diseases common to the day. How the Borgias created that compound remains a mystery, although some speculate that they coated dead pigs’ entrails in arsenic and left the poison to be absorbed into the rotting material, after which the resulting liquid was squeezed out and collected.

And poison development continues even today, albeit in a somewhat more scientific way. In 2006, the dissident Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in London while under the protection of MI6.  That event introduced us to the reality of targeted radiation poisoning.

Police believe a does of polonium 210 was slipped into his tea at a Mayfair hotel, probably by Russian FSB agents, who were later named by police but never arrested. It took 23 days for Litvinenko to die – a period in which he would have been in intense pain. And the cost? It’s been estimated that the polonium 210, which can only be formed inside a nuclear reactor, would cost tens of billions of dollars if purchased on the open market – but free if you happen to own a suitable reactor yourself!

Litvinenko was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

A Breath of Cyanide


Methods of administering poison are often a lot more sophisticated than that hotel’s silver teapot, and the peculiar minds who design such weapons have spent much time developing them. The 1978 case of the Bulgarian writer exiled to Britain, Georgi Markov, is one example of this. He was poisoned by a pellet of ricin shot from the tip of an umbrella into his leg while he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge (a similar umbrella is a morbid but interesting exhibit in Washington’s spy museum– see for details).

The same museum also has a gas gun, a weapon used by the KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957. This consisted of a seven inch metal tube that unscrewed into 3 sections for smuggling to the target’s destination. When assembled and fired, the mechanism broke a capsule of cyanide gas and squirted it into the face of a victim. The gun was designed so that it could be fired from inside a rolled newspaper, so was never seen during the attack.

The benefit of this weapon came from the fact that the detectable presence of cyanide disappeared from the victim’s body within minutes – once fired into their face, their arteries contracted and they died, but everything returned to normal by the time the corpse was examined, and there was no trace of the cyanide because it was breathed rather than ingested. The conclusion: heart failure; death by natural causes.

His victim was Dr Lev Rebet in West Germany. According to, the assassin had to be very careful to avoid the effects of the gas on himself, should any of it blow back at him, and therefore had to take nerve pills, anti-gas pills and a poison antidote immediately before pulling the trigger.

Because the intention was to make the death look like natural causes, users of this weapon were trained never to run from the scene but, if anyone saw them, the assassin was to pretend to help the victim, as though coming to aid of someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

Other victims followed, but this method of murder eventually became too much for Stashinsky, and he fled across Germany to the Western sector just before the Berlin wall was erected, where he surrendered to the Americans. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labour after admitting the assassinations, but was released early for giving the CIA information that helped them solve many other KGB originated murders. He lived in West Germany under a new identity.

Ingenious Designers

So much death, pain and misery has been dished out at the hand of expert assassins.  I can’t help thinking that the undoubtedly ingenious and talented engineers who designed the kinds of weapons we’ve looked at could greatly benefit humanity if only they would turn their skills to the creation of devices that helped mankind rather than killed. However, man’s nature has always had a desire to commit murder, from the days of Cain and Abel to today. Let’s hope that one day a way can be found to stop our natural propensity to want to kill, and to use our engineering talents only for good.

Never Too Old To Fulfil An Ambition

A bit of a different blog this time.  Just for this month, rather than posting my usual style of article, I’m instead thinking about fulfilling ambitions, inspired by the launch of my book Eavesdrop….


Many of us have held ambitions for years – even decades – without ever having made a serious attempt to fulfil them. Now’s the time to face yourself in the mirror, give yourself a shake, and remember that you’re never too old to fulfil an ambition.

A couple of years ago, palliative-care nurse Bronnie Ware recorded the top five regrets of her patients on a blog. The most common regret, she wrote, occurred when they suddenly realised they’d not fulfilled even half of their dreams. Don’t let that be you.

This short article hopes to offer encouragement and a handful of tips on how to have the best chance of achieving your goals.


Write It Down

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the best tools is a pen – simply writing down what you want to achieve helps dramatically. There are two reasons for this: firstly, if you only ever hold a list of ambitions in your head, it will feel longer and more daunting than if it’s in black and white in front of you. Once they’re written down one after the other, you’ll realise the list isn’t as long as you thought, especially once you’ve removed duplications.



Secondly, such a list will help you decide what to focus on first.  With them recorded on paper, your brain is free to concentrate on what’s important – i.e. on deciding how to go about fulfilling that ambition, rather than worrying about all the other things you want to do.

Try it! You’ll be surprised how much it helps.

Now with that list in front of you, pick the ambition that’s most important you. Let’s concentrate on that one first.


Make It Realistic

Realism is important here, of-course.  If your dream is to take a place in the first violins of the LSO but you only ever achieved grade one violin as a child and haven’t played since, that’s probably a step too far. So now amend the ambition you selected with an eye on what’s realistically achievable. If necessary, do a little research to see what’s sensible. For instance, my childhood dream was to write a novel, so I studied the art of writing and quickly realised that to get published these days is very difficult. Therefore, I set my goal, instead, to be: “complete and edit a full length novel so that it’s ready for a publisher.”

Don’t worry just yet that you might not be pushing yourself far enough.  You want to achieve more?  That’s brilliant, but make that your second goal, which you’ll set once you’ve completed the first, simpler one. Think of it as a sequence of steps with each one harder than its predecessor – let’s deal with stage one initially, and remember it’s only the beginning.  So don’t be tempted to go straight for the big one in a single step – that’s setting yourself up for motivational problems later.

Perhaps you won’t ever play in the first violins at the Royal Albert Hall, but wouldn’t performing as part of your local sinfonietta be just as satisfying? Go for that one instead, at least as a first step.


It can also make an amazing difference how you word your goal. Best is to describe what will be different after you’ve achieved it, so write about it in the past tense: pretend you have already achieved it, and describe what you’ve managed to do. That turns it into a more positive statement. Mine came to be worded: “I have written and edited a full length thriller, and what I’m holding is ready to be sent to an agent or publisher.” Far more inspirational.

Now reword yours and stick it above your desk or on the fridge; somewhere you can see it. It’s also worth giving thought to who you will tell. Studies suggest that those people who tell others about their personal goals are more likely to achieve them than those who keep them secret. If your friends know what you’re planning, you will feel that bit of extra pressure to keep working at it.  And a little bit of pressure is good for encouragement.


How to Make it Happen

Whether you share your ambition with someone or not, it’s important to put something in place to help you now convert that dream into reality.

For most of your working life, others have probably set targets and actions for you. Now is the time to write your own. Take a fresh sheet of paper and jot down the individual actions you’re going to take to achieve that goal. Make them manageable chunks and write down dates when they’ll be achieved.


For instance, when I was working on my thriller Eavesdrop, I reckoned I could sensibly write 600 words a day between my other commitments, so I simply wrote my weekly word-count targets on a calendar. There it was – visible on my wall to harass me each day, and I annotated it weekly with progress. So break yours down in a similar fashion and you’ll have your personal stepping stones to fulfilling that lifelong ambition.

Now go and pin that calendar to your wall as a constant reminder.


Have a Flexible Routine

The best approach is then to create a daily or weekly routine. When will you perform those actions? For me, I adopted a regime of thirty minutes writing first thing every morning. Try to get yourself into a routine that becomes habitual.

But be prepared to be flexible – if other things keep arising to derail your plans, don’t just sit back and let your hopes of fulfilling that ambition die away, but amend your plans.  If you keep it realistic and flexible, you will succeed. Don’t give excuses – if you want it to happen, you must work at it to ensure it does. At the end of the day, it’s you to you.


Achieving That Dream

A recent study undertaken by Ohio University proved the theory propounded by both Freud and Jung that parents who push their children very hard to succeed, are actually attempting to fulfil their own dreams through their children. There’s no need for you to do that – you’ve listed out your goals, selected the first one, and you’re already on your way to making that ambition a reality.

Good luck!

Virtual Tour to Mark Eavesdrop’s Launch

To mark the launch of the paperback version of the thriller, Eavesdrop, I’m doing a short virtual tour.  January blogs are therefore being hosted on other sites.  Here are some of the highlights –

Jan 14th  5 Tips for Maintaining Motivation on The Eureka Life

Jan 19th  Interview  by Lisa Haselton

Jan 19th  Ian Coates Talks About Eavesdrop

Jan 20th  Cover Reveal on CBY Book Club

Jan 20th  Thriller Writer Reads From Eavesdrop

Jan 20th  Never Too Old to Fulful An Ambition on Saga

TBA        Interview by Crime Thriller Fella

I hope you enjoy these, and I look forward to meeting you back here in Feb.

More details about Eavesdrop can be found on Amazon:

EavesdropCoverIanLOW res

What do smugglers, assassins and a Mossad spy have in common?

Not much of a blog this month, I’m afraid, as I’ve been busy with my publisher doing the final proof reads for my thriller Eavesdrop. The final cover art has arrived and is quite stunning, which is exciting. I awoke Thursday morning to the news that the Kindle version was available on Amazon, which meant I then had to busy myself creating an Author profile.  At least I had my bio and photos and stuff already prepared.

EavesdropCoverIanLOW res

The timing was great, though.  Purely coincidentally, my employer was about to publish their quarterly magazine, and I managed to get them to do a page spread about how I came to write Eavesdrop.  They published it the day after the Kindle version hit Amazon.  That’s the sort of timing you might call “jammy”. But they always say that doing well at writing requires a good dose of luck.

Here’s hoping for some more in the coming weeks as we get ready for the paperback.  Just had the final galleys through for approval.  Better not keep her waiting!

Eavesdrop by Ian Coates:

Smuggling and industrial espionage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?

High Tech That Thinks For Itself

As I was growing up, robots were limited to the car production line.  Adverts abounded that showed robotic arms welding chassis with amazing speed and precision.  Slowly, though, robots have moved out of the factory and, on their caterpillar tracks, have trundled into a world where they make our lives safer by working in dangerous situations on our behalf.

Now, I am a technophile.  I love new technology, and have worked with it for my whole career.  Some may have ethical worries about what we may “allow” robots to do, but in this month’s blog I want to focus on the positives of how they allow us to do tasks we otherwise couldn’t, and what else they can do for us with the aid of artificial intelligence.

The power of robots comes from their ability to operate in hostile environments, where they can act as their handler’s remote arm. Robots can examine suspicious objects and give their operators the ability to disarm bombs without being so close that an explosion would kill them.  They can enter nuclear reactors and check for cracks or leaking radiation. Robots can work beneath the waves at depths where the pressure would crush our feeble bodies, and stay there longer than our puny lungs would permit.  They freely enter tunnels without being distracted by the risk that the roof might collapse or that gas levels could become dangerous.

Let’s explore what these beautiful bits of technology can do for us.

I was fascinated recently by an MIT press release that told of how a robot it had designed to search the walls of nuclear reactors for cracks, had been converted to an anti-smuggling robot. These football-sized machines can now swim underwater and secretly scan a ship’s hull to find the secret compartments used by smugglers.  It’s envisaged that a shoal of twenty such robots would work together to scan a complete ship’s hull without those on board ever realising.

And while we’re thinking about the fight against smugglers, other robots are being used to continuously search the maze of tunnels near the U.S border that are so frequently used to smuggle drugs into America. reported at the start of this year that over 170 tunnels have been found beneath the U.S. – Mexico border, linking into Arizona’s storm drainage system, through which the smugglers can enter the U.S. These tunnels are frequently no larger than a man can crawl through, so securing them can be dangerous and time-consuming, thus making it a perfect application for a robot. These machines are really little more than remote-controlled cars with a camera, which feed back what they see to a Border Patrol agent at the surface.  You can watch a great video of one of these at work on [link].

robot bomb disposal

This is very similar technology, of- course, to that used in bomb-disposal robots such as the British Army’s Dragon Runner that was deployed in Afghanistan.  This version is far more rugged than those sent after drugs smugglers, and has arms that allow its operator to manipulate what it finds – for example to open a bag or to carry suspicious objects to a safer location for destruction. Essentially, though, they are still just remote controlled vehicles, and a long way short of the science-fiction robot that can think for itself.

Scientists are, however, working hard to give robots intelligence.  Researchers in artificial intelligence (A.I.) have been striving for over fifteen years to give robots the ability to work things out for themselves, and to allow the tether between robot and its human operator to be severed. Rather than such robots running on software that’s been written to control what the machine does when it encounters a pre-defined set of conditions, robots endowed with artificial intelligence work in a different way.

They are given many sensors, and their software allows the robot to use them to learn the effect of its actions. For example, consider a model car with ultrasonic sensors: if programmed with A.I. to have the objective of reaching the far wall of a room with barriers placed in the way; the first few times it tries to cross the space, it hits the barriers and can’t progress.  However, it soon learns that its sensor gives a high output just before it fails its mission, and realises there is a correlation.  From then on, whenever its sensor output goes high, the robot stops and tries a different route.  Before long, it is able to manoeuvre around the obstacles to reach the far wall.  Like a baby experimenting with arms and legs and fingers, it learns by itself the best way to succeed.

The advantage of a robot that can think for itself is the speed with which it can process information.  Take, for example, the automated missile defence systems that have been so successful at protecting countries from incoming rockets. A human operator has sufficient time to recognize an in-coming missile and start to say something, but can manage nothing more in that time.  A robot with A.I., however, thinks sufficiently quickly that it can identify the threat, aim its own weapons, and shoot it down before it strikes.

The downside, though, is that it is, after all, just a computer controlled robot. Some years ago, a system that was being demonstrated at a defence show incorrectly locked-on to a group of bystanders and had killed them before a human operator could de-activate the robot.


Such events, and memories of such films as Robocop and The Terminator, make the public wary of letting robots lose when they have integrated weapons. There is still a very strong pull, however, for weaponized robots to be developed that can be used in frontline fighting.

One major obstacle is of course batteries. We all know how quickly a power-pack runs flat, especially when powering powerful motors.  In order to prolong the amount of time robots can spend on a mission, scientists have been developing what are being called scavenger robots.  One research machine knows whimsically as EATR (Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot) has been developed to re-charge itself by consuming organic matter. While out on a mission, just like a wild animal it consumes vegetation to keep itself powered, giving it the ability to roam freely without the need to return for a re-charge.

Worries exist here for its battlefield use, though. Proponents say it is programmed to identify and eat only vegetation.  Those who oppose such a system, on the other hand, are worried that it may still start of feed on fallen soldiers.  Shudder.

Technology marches on ever faster, with robots gaining more intelligence, speed, and the ability to operate with increasing freedom from their human handlers. They can outthink us; the worry is, will the ever outsmart us?


Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

Ian Coates is the author of the thriller, Eavesdrop, to be published  shortly by Bad Day Books, an imprint of Assent Publishing.

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?




Romney Marsh Smugglers – A Violent History

You can almost taste smuggling in the air around Romney Marsh.  When I visited Rye harbour and the marshes the other year to research my current thriller, I could sense the area’s long association with contraband and Customs men. With the houses and inn so close to the River Rother, and the miles of surrounding uninhabited grassland, it’s easy to imagine smugglers unloading boats under cover of darkness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A surprise was to come, though, when I learned how smuggling in the area started, and what it was they initially smuggled: it didn’t start with tobacco or spirits, but with wool.

Romney Marsh (known incidentally as “the birthplace of smuggling in Southern England”) was home to many flocks of sheep and when, in the thirteenth century, the government started to levy high export duty on their fleeces, it was here that wool smuggling began. With its easy access to the Channel, Rye became home to smugglers. Fleeces were taken to France, where they fetched good prices because the English wool was stronger and its threads longer than its European counterpart.

Of-course, why travel back with your boat empty?  So smugglers who took fleeces for sale in Flanders, began to return with brandy, tobacco, tea and silk from the continent.  With the River Rother’s proximity to local inns where such items could be swiftly sold, Rye naturally became one of the smuggling centres on England’s south coast. Boat builders became adept at creating hiding-places in the local vessels; and the Excise officers became even more determined to find them.  By the early 1820s, Rye boasted 28 Excise officers.

Their efforts to identify the smugglers and seize contraband grew to become a war rather than a game.  Smugglers took to wearing a “bee-skep” (a traditional woven domed bee-hive) cut with eye and mouth holes – the balaclava of the day, I suppose – so a law was soon passed that anyone found wearing one – or, indeed, even having their face blacked to hide their identity – was to suffer the death penalty.

Communication between ship and shore without these officers intercepting the messages became vital if the smugglers were to succeed.  Lacking today’s wide collection of secure radio transmitters, they had to resort to simpler equipment.  Lights, of-course, provided the most straightforward methods of communication, but were also the easiest to spot, a problem that soon spawned the design of the smugglers’ lamp.  These had the look of a metal watering can: the bright light from the main body of the lamp was only visible along the spout that protruded from one side to give a reasonably directional light source that could be used to signal between shore and a nearby boat without light being visible farther along the coast. To send messages with the light, the smuggler aimed it carefully and then simply moved his hand back and forth in front of the spout to create short flashes.

As profits grew, so did the size of the smuggling gangs.  Soon, rather than smuggling being the domain of a single smuggler making an occasional run to the French coast, it became dominated by large and often vicious gangs of sometimes several hundred men.  They virtually ruled the marshes and occasionally terrorized the local villages.  Many records recall full-scale and bloody battles between them and large groups of Customs men.

The nearby village of Lydd was another local smuggling centre.  One account recorded by Andrew Leaning on his website records the fight that took place when a gang of two hundred smugglers was caught unloading 2000 gallons of spirits. The running battle with customs men continued across Walland Marsh, ending in the village of Brookland.  These weren’t just gangs; they were now small armies.

Local taverns, of-course, played a large part in smuggling in the area.  The Mermaid Inn tells of how members of the infamous Hawkhurst gang, which numbered 600 men at its peak, was so confident of its power that in the 1750s they would sit openly at the window of The Mermaid Inn after successfully landing contraband, with loaded pistols at their sides, confident that local magistrates wouldn’t dare to interfere.


The Hawkhurst gang, who took their name from the village they most frequented, was said to have dug many underground tunnels in the area to secretly connect key locations to the cellar of the village’s main inns.  By the early 1700s, they reportedly had five hundred pack horses at their disposal for subsequently transporting their contraband farther inland.

It was ultimately the gang’s violence that turned the locals against them, though.  Whereas initially they were often seen as heroes who battled against unfair taxes, the growing levels of violence towards those they suspected of informing on them soon reversed public opinion. When one gang member, Daniel Chater, tried to offer an alibi to Customs officials for a colleague who’d been arrested, an informer saw him talking to them and reported it to the gang. Mistakenly thinking Chatter was grassing, they horse-whipped the unfortunate Chater until nearly dead, and left him tied-up for days before deciding to kill him. In order that guilt couldn’t be laid against any one individual, they considered shooting Chater by tying string to a gun’s trigger and all pulling simultaneously. Eventually, though, to make an example of him, they chose instead to throw him down a thirty foot well in Lady Holt Park and dropped large stones on him until he was dead.

Events like that turned the public against them, and the gang’s fortunes changed.  Over subsequent years, members of the gang were progressively arrested and executed and, by 1750, the gang had lost its pre-eminence.

But did all the smuggling disappear with the gangs, I wonder? With Rye’s easy access to the English Channel and quick roads to the modern airfield at Lydd, the area still has plenty of potential.

What plots are hatched in Rye’s inns these days? We may well have moved on from smuggling wool fleeces, but what other contraband might be taking its place today?



Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?

Published by Bad Day Books, an imprint of Assent Publishing.

Smuggling – From Songbirds to Human Eyeballs

It’s amazing what you stumble across on the internet. While doing research on smuggling for my current novel, I found a blatant request for advice on how to smuggle weed through customs – “Its cost in my home country is just ridiculous so I want to bring some back with me from holiday,” the post whinged. I did wonder if this was just a clever ploy by an enthusiastic customs official, but putting to one side the author’s authenticity, the answers he got were interesting.

The most straight forward response was: “Don’t bother – just grow your own when you get back,” with a link to a website selling suitable seed. Others offered more practical smuggling advice, which I won’t repeat here for fear of having the authorities on my tail for aiding an illicit trade in drugs.  It was amazing to realise, though, just how open some people are prepared to be about their smuggling. But then, I never cease to be astonished at what amateur smugglers attempt to do.


Not surprisingly, the most popular items to smuggle vary depending on which country they’re being taken into.  France, for instance, is a popular destination for meat from exotic wildlife like antelope and monkey, which then appears on the menus of select Parisian restaurants.  Many of them come from endangered species, which I suppose is what makes them rarer, therefore more expensive to obtain, and consequently more attractive to smugglers.

 A few years ago, it was estimated that five tonnes of such banned meat pass illegally through the main Paris airport every week.  In 2008, a selection of passengers from 29 flights into Paris from Africa were searched, and of the 134 people stopped, a staggering 83 of them (that’s nearly two-thirds!) were found to be carrying livestock or fish.  One problem customs officials had, though, was to identify what the meat was because it wasn’t always obvious from the carcasses. Their solution was for scientists to boil the remains until the bones could be removed – reassembling the skeletons then allowed them to decide which animal it had once been. Clever thinking.

Many animals come through customs alive, however. Or at least, they were alive when the smuggler boarded the plane. And they fetch good prices – a large specimen of an Asian Dragon fish, for instance, can fetch $20,000.  No wonder, then, that there’s profitable trade in endangered species.

Smuggling live animals, though, is never easy, and there are often giveaway signs. A man smuggling live songbirds from Vietnam, for instance, was caught when customs agent’s suspicions were aroused by the amount of bird droppings on his shoes.  When the passenger was searched, fourteen birds were found swaddled in cloth inside his trousers.  Unfortunately, 5 of them had died.

There’s also a recorded case of a woman flying from Singapore to Melbourne who was stopped at customs when officials heard what they described as “flipping” noises coming from her skirt. When she was searched, fifteen water-filled plastic bags were found nestled in a multi-pocketed apron hidden beneath her clothes. All full, of-course, with tropical fish.

Other smuggling exploits, though, are much weirder. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail reported a survey that had made on the oddest things smuggled through customs. In the UK, they wrote, customs officials at Stansted airport once found ten human eyeballs floating in a jam jar secreted in one passenger’s luggage. It was never reported what they were wanted for.

Then, retuning to the edible delicacies theme, they also mentioned a case from 2012 when 420lbs of cows’ brains were confiscated on their way into Cairo. Although cow brains can be bought in Sudan for under a dollar a pound, in Egypt they fetch six times that.  “Yuk. Just the thought makes me feel queasy,” is all I can say. And, yes, they are delicacies to eat in that part of the world. I write this while eating lunch; suddenly I don’t feel like finishing my paté sandwich.

Sign trip. Illustration of a group of suitcases and a plane tick

One of the more ghoulish smuggling attempts has to be the one made by Gitta Jarant, who brought her dead husband through Berlin customs in a wheelchair.  “He’s just sleeping,” she explained, but further investigation found he’d been dead for twelve hours, and she was charged with contravening laws on the shipment of dead bodies. Fancy having the seat next to that pair. Perhaps she simply didn’t want to waste a non-refundable plane ticket.

Personally, I would never have the nerve to smuggle anything through an airport [Mr Customs official: please take note!]. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing fiction – I can do anything I fancy through my characters without the risk of getting caught.  Others, though, seem continually intent on foolish attempts to bring all sorts of weird contraband into the country.  In my novel Eavesdrop, the smugglers only deal with the more traditional diamonds and cigarettes, but perhaps I should have embraced some of this weirdness.  Maybe a lion’s head or a baboon’s bottom might have been more realistic.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of being smuggled?  Can you do better than cow’s brains and human eyeballs?

[with acknowledgment to for their fascinating article on this subject, from which many of the above facts were gleaned].




Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?

 Published by Bad Day Books, and imprint of Assent Publishing.


Trade Secrets For Sale

Over the years, research for my thrillers has resulted in a box full of tapes containing recordings of various radio documentaries.  Having recently decided it was time to modernize that collection, I set about transferring them from compact cassette to MP3, and in the process, came across a two-part series from BBC Radio4 entitled “Bugging The Boardroom”.  I listened to it again with fascination.

The main focus was on how companies can lose their trade secrets (what we tend these days to call “intellectual property”).  In some cases, having those stolen and sold to competitors has caused companies to make massive losses, even to point of being forced to shed staff to stay afloat.


One such example came from an engineering company in Sheffield, England, that had a patented method to produce valves that worked in very high temperature environments for much longer and with greater reliability than their competitors. The first they knew that something was wrong was when their U.S distributor, with whom they had signed an exclusivity agreement, called them in a very agitated state and demanded to know why they’d broken their agreement and were allowing another distributor to sell their parts. Worse, they were selling them for much less. Shortly after, he got an irate call from his Japanese distributor, asking why another supplier had been allowed to sell products there – apparently the other company was promoting them from a stand directly opposite his own at a trade show.

Investigations soon showed that another firm had suddenly started producing identical valves at close to cost price. Sales plummeted as a result and redundancies had to made to prevent the company sliding into receivership.

Suspicious at how this new company was managing to sell very similar products at such an incredibly low cost, they employed a firm of private investigators to get inside the factory and take a look at their production environment.  The investigators employed the oldest method known to espionage – and one of the most successful – and it worked perfectly: they sent a very pretty girl down to the factory with a charming smile. She carried a bucket and sponge and told them she was earning money to help fund her degree course by washing cars, and could she possibly wash the ones in their car park?

Her charm and smile got her inside the building and she was soon chatting to the mechanics and engineers. They were so taken in by her that they even showed her the machinery they were using. What they didn’t realise, of-course, was that her handbag carried a hidden camera that videoed the complete visit.

The company that employed her gained so much evidence from that video that they were able to force their rival to agree to cease trading.

In that instance, the technical documents that had been stolen had been taken by a disgruntled employee – he was annoyed at having been passed over for promotion, and when a death in his family delivered him a large sum of money, he set up on his own, taking the secrets with him to kick-start a rival business.

The underhand action of employees like that is of the most common ways for trade secrets to leak from a company, but more sophisticated methods are not unknown. Accessing your competitor’s computer over the internet is also an effective way to obtain confidential documents. A good example of that is the story of one particular Israeli couple based in London.  The pair had created a very effective and highly targeted piece of Trojan software.  They created DVDs containing business proposals and mailed them to several CEOs.  Once placed in the computer’s hard drive, the Trojan software secretly went to work and expertly studied all the files on the computer and company network.  Within thirty minutes, it had downloaded masses of highly sensitive information which the two spies copied and sold to competitors. In some instances, these were documents related to imminent company takeovers, and the purchasers of that information were able to make a great deal of money by buying shares just before it was publically announced. Because of how targeted the spy software was, the normal virus and malware protection mechanisms never spotted it.


The operation of this couple and their theft of secrets in this manner went unnoticed for a long time, and they built it into a highly profitable business – targeting, stealing, and selling. Their handiwork was only discovered when they decided to use their Trojan in a vendetta against a family member: after an acrimonious marriage breakup, they targeted their software at him. He was a university academic and writer, and he soon found extracts from the book he was working on were being published online with defamatory comments. When he studied those comments, he thought he recognized the turn-of-phrase of his step-daughter’s husband. Unaware, of-course, that of how massive an espionage operation he was about to uncover, he employed a cyber-security firm to study the person he suspected. They followed leads that led to the servers the spies were using, on which were found secrets from top companies around the globe.

Spying like this, then, can affect all companies from heavy engineering companies to high-tech start-ups.  The big problem in the UK is that stealing trade secrets isn’t actually a criminal offence. The 1968 Criminal Theft Act excludes intellectual property from its scope, and the police are therefore not interested in such cases.  Other laws need to be brought to bear to get police support: for instance, it isn’t actually illegal in the UK to steal trade secrets by planting a radio bug in your competitor’s boardroom. If someone is caught doing that, the only recourse to criminal law is to use the fact that it’s illegal to transmit radio signals. That makes it far more difficult to make effective charges stick to the culprits, if they are ever caught, that is.

The theft of trade secrets, this BBC programme explained, is surprisingly large.  Experts reckoned that it could be losing the country £200billion a year, but companies tend to hush up anything that happens like this in order to keep face.

Do you know of any companies that have lost trade secrets and suffered as a result? It’s been suggested the company morals have declined over the years and that it’s a lot more common these days.  If you left your employer, what would tempt you to take their secrets with you?  I find it hard to believe that people would do that, but perhaps I’m too nice; the evidence suggests it’s a growing trend.


Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.


Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave customs investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East Assassins?


Published by Bad Day Books, an imprint of Assent Publishing

Twitter: @ian_coates_





The Spy In Your Pocket

I recently watched a TV thriller in which the CIA was able to eavesdrop on a terrorist’s meeting by remotely hijacking the mobile phone that was in his pocket and using its microphone to listen-in to his conversations. I’m not talking here about when the phone was in use, but when it was sitting innocently in his jacket; it was suddenly under their remote control.

Phooey, I thought. A large percentage of my career in the electronics industry was spent designing mobile phones, and I couldn’t imagine how that could be done. “That’s nonsense,” I told my wife and huffed to myself.

But yesterday I stumbled across a magazine article about how the CIA did that very thing, so I decided to investigate – was it the bunkum of an ill-informed TV script writer or was there something behind it after all?

Apparently, the FBI used this method to eavesdrop on an alleged mobster, John Ardito, and his attorney. The principle works because modern mobile cell phones are basically small computers that load and run software. Even better, they aren’t normally fully disabled when switched off so that an alarm can power it back up under the microprocessor’s control.

As a Financial Times article pointed out, mobile service providers can remotely install software on your handset without you knowing. That software can then do anything, even when you think your phone is off – it can use the inbuilt GPS to determine your location, activate its camera and send out the video, or turn on the microphone and initiate a call. All without your knowledge.

Security conscious business men now remove batteries from their phones when not using them – the only way to guarantee they can’t do anything sneaky.


In theory, your laptop can be made to do the same thing, of-course, and there are stories of intelligence agencies having loaded malware onto a suspect’s machine to perform a similar trick. However, you no doubt have a firewall and run anti-virus software and have all sorts of other security in place to defeat such a hack, but what about your mobile? Who has Norton or MacAfee installed on their cell phone?

Perhaps it’s time to start if you’re ever worried about a government agency eavesdropping on your calls.

Is it illegal for an organisation like the FBI to use such techniques to spy on you? Surprisingly, no: a court ruling in 2006 gave law enforcement agencies carte-blanche to use this method.

Scarier still is the report that the NSA has embedded its software into the Android operating system. So no need even to persuade a cellular operator to download code anymore. Google (the manufacturer of Android software) can, should it wish, activate your phone’s camera and microphone at will. So next time your mobile phone’s battery goes flat unusually fast – is it because your phone is secretly giving the FBI your location and whatever the microphone can pick-up?

And what about internet tablets? I haven’t seen reports of governments ensuring suitable malware is present in their operating systems yet, but as the majority run Google’s Android, why should they be any different to phones? So that tablet that’s sitting innocuously on your side table, apparently turned off…? Perhaps you had better go and remove its battery.


If you’re worried about having your phone messages intercepted, though, be grateful you don’t live in The Bahamas. The island’s image seems lovely: soft warm sand, gentle waves, palm trees… but according to one of the documents leaked by the NSA’s Edward Snowden last year, the U.S. intelligence agency recorded the audio of every single mobile phone call made in The Bahamas. That’s over 100 million calls per day according to Wired Magazine. Codenamed Somalget, the system stores the audio for thirty days to allow it to be sifted and analysed.

Defending the practice, the NSA’s Crime & Narcotics division claimed it had led to the discovery of international narcotics traffickers and people smugglers.

So what do you think? Right or wrong? Eavesdropping on your calls can lead to the capture of criminals, but are you happy with the idea of your phone call being recorded and available for analysis for all of the following month?


Twitter: @ian_coates_