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Inspired by James Bond, Couple Market the Gadgets of Intrigue

April 06, 1986|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

The gadgets in Privacy Connection's catalogue look like pricier versions of ones found on the back page of a Spiderman comic book. Or maybe Soldier of Fortune magazine.

The brochure showcases everything from an electronic gizmo that distorts a voice on the telephone to a night-vision scope.

Privacy Connection can arrange to outfit a car with a cellular telephone scrambler, armor-coated windows, a dashboard video monitor or an "emotional stress monitor" that supposedly detects nervousness by measuring how much someone's voice cracks.

Philip and Beverly Wolvek operate the business from a small office on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, sending catalogues to people who request them. They don't advertise yet, depending instead on word of mouth.

Privacy Connection is simply a distributor and doesn't do any manufacturing. It sells to clients such as Hollywood studios, which use the products as props, and private investigators, who may be checking clients' suspicions about cheating spouses.

Anti-Terrorism Market

The business also aims at tapping the growing market of executives and politicians concerned about terrorists. Privacy Connection sells bulletproof vests and a bulletproof briefcase that sends a non-lethal, 4,000-volt charge through its handle if tampered with.

But Philip Wolvek, 40, the firm's mild-mannered president, says many customers are just kids at heart who like a gee-whiz kind of toy. "We sell the things that no one needs and everyone wants," he said.

Most of the company's competitors are much bigger. New York-based CCS Communication Control, for example, reports annual sales exceeding $10 million and has a store in Beverly Hills as well as six other U. S. cities. The company also has stores in London and Paris.

"We feel most people spending thousands of dollars would rather deal with a larger, more reputable firm," Alice Fribourg, a CCS spokeswoman, said.

Anti-Bugging Device

Founded a year ago, Privacy Connection has recorded sales of only about $100,000, Philip Wolvek said. Its biggest seller is a $2,950 device that tells whether a room is being bugged. The Wolveks sold 20 last year, accounting for about 60% of sales, Philip Wolvek said.

The other products aren't cheap either. The night-vision scope sells for $5,600, the bulletproof briefcase for $1,800 and the set of phone scramblers for $900

With volume so low, the Wolveks aren't making a profit yet. But, for Philip Wolvek, the gadget business represents a release from 17 years of plodding around the country selling cheap sunglasses to discount stores.

He sold his sunglasses business in 1981 and began studying up on how to be like Q, a character in James Bond movies who supplies 007 with his latest items of wizardry and asks that they be returned intact.

"I found that all these things you see in the movies--the tracking devices, secret transmitters and all that stuff--are real," said Wolvek, who, unlike Q, is more interested in how things work than how they are made.

By his own admission, Philip Wolvek is not a technical wizard. Instead of taking up computers or electronics, he studied psychology at Pierce College.

He and Beverly, 42, drive to work every day from their Woodland Hills home in their souped-up 1985 Jeep Cherokee, "a showroom on wheels," she calls it. The Cherokee has every feature that the Wolveks can have installed in a vehicle, including a car-tracking device designed to receive signals from planted transmitters.

Many of its options are legal to own but not to use; these include devices that shoot out smoke, oil, ball bearings and nails from the back to thwart cars in a chase. Wolvek said he won't sell those to everyone, but will offer them to prop departments in studios and public officials with "special authorizations."

Offers Other Options

Wolvek said he will sell other devices, such as one that emits a high-pitched whine designed to disperse crowds, only to law-enforcement agencies. After about a minute of exposure to the "pain generator," humans get nauseated and vomit, he said. He hasn't sold any yet.

Bob Vincent, manager of properties for Stephen J. Cannell Productions in Hollywood, said he has used equipment from Privacy Connection on "The A-Team" television show. "Because all of their products really work, they make the plots more realistic," he said.

A Century City private investigator, who asked not to be identified, said he used Wolvek's bug-detection equipment for an aerospace executive who suspected that one of his associates was spying for a competitor. The investigator said transmitters were found, and the aerospace company fired the executive, who admitted placing them.

Wolvek figures that he needs a more sophisticated marketing approach to grow. The company recently purchased a direct-mail list and plans to start advertising soon.

Firm Attracts Publicity

The Wolveks have found that one advantage of their business is that it attracts publicity. Philip Wolvek says that their products have appeared on network television three times--including on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"--and that he has been interviewed 10 times on local television.

At least one appearance, however, did not go as he might have planned. In an appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman" in March, 1985, his host, after a few biting questions, suggested that Wolvek was overcharging for his products.

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