"Pimps, gangbangers, drug dealers, and prostitutes," says Bill Higginson, CEO of $15-million IMC Property Management, when asked about his biggest business headaches. Higginson manages 65 low-income-housing buildings in inner-city Chicago. Hoping to reduce crime, he spent nearly $3 million on security guards last year. But besides being an "impossible" cost to sustain long term, the guards were prone to bribery and often lost their resolve standing outside in 20-degree temperatures.

Higginson turned to security consultant Phil Wayne for help. Wayne sold him on a digitized surveillance system called SiteLink, from TeleControl Systems (TCS). TCS rigged Higginson's buildings with cameras that transmit images to PCs set up in IMC's various offices. If Higginson checks out a building rigged with, say, 15 cameras, he'll see a matrix of 15 squares on his screen. Clicking on a given square gives him a close-up view. "You can pick up the license-plate number of someone speeding through the parking lot," he says.

The images are also transmitted to TCS's "visual command center" in Woodland Hills, a site staffed 24/7. At Higginson's request, the TCS team can flip a switch and "tour" his properties, so someone is keeping watch over the buildings when Higginson's crew is home in bed. Should the tour reveal suspicious activity, TCS employees can "voice down" a warning to the would-be malefactors through camera-mounted speakers. "A voice comes booming down saying, 'You are under surveillance. You must disperse," says Higginson.

He concedes that SiteLink isn't cheap, but the annual costs -- about $2,200 a month per property -- come to only about 30% of what manned security would cost him. And it's more effective: in the last six months of 1999, IMC made only seven police calls, fewer than half the number for the same period in 1998.