One morning, Tricia frantically calls me on her drive to work. “Tom told me last night he wants a divorce,” she says, sobbing. “He says he has proof that I’ve been cheating, but I swear — I haven’t done anything.”
“What?” was all I can spit out. I think maybe she wants to talk, or perhaps needs the number of a good lawyer. But to my surprise, she takes a different course of action.
“I’m driving to AT&T. I think he put some sort of app on my phone to track me, so I need to talk to someone and find out what I’m dealing with,” she says. “Then I’m going to my mechanic to see if there is a GPS unit on my car somewhere.”
She sounds crazy. But then, she explains her suspicions to me — details that would make the most incurable romantic look twice at their smartphone.
Back when lipstick on the collar caused suspicion, you’d hire a private investigator to snoop around. It’s tempting to think of them slouching idly in a car, hat down, waiting to snap incriminating photographs of a cheater coming out of someone’s front door, but today, detectives rely on the latest technologies in their hunt for answers.
“Technology is changing investigations,” Mike Kirkman, owner of Las Vegas Detectives, told me. And business is better than ever, especially in a city with a reputation for hedonistic escapism.
“People come here based on the concept that they can do whatever they want and it won’t be discovered,” he said, echoing the city’s familiar “What Happens In Vegas, Stays in Vegas” catchphrase. “There are 150,000 hotel rooms on the Las Vegas Boulevard alone — which translates to about 300,000 people on any given day — and people think with those numbers, they can be anonymous.”
But technology can catch nearly anything. Kirkman, the former vice president of the Nevada Society of Professional Investigators, is particularly enthusiastic about camera innovations. He prefers tiny camera, disguised to look like a button on the front of a dress shirt, or those hidden in wristwatch, in a throwback to Dick Tracy.
The mobility and discretion of those cameras helps Kirkman with the old P.I. standard — surveillance, which he says is still the most reliable investigative method.
“I came to Vegas 18 years ago and back then, these cameras were the size of a small suitcase,” he recalled. “Now they are HD, electronic cameras that are so small you can’t even see them — and we can stop or start them with remote devices.”
“We use video cameras and document what we observe — including the couple who’ve been out drinking all night, walking back to a hotel room giggling and kissing at 2 a.m.,” he continued, adding that surveillance is then e-mailed to the client. Tapes and snapshots of the betrayal no longer arrive days later in a big brown envelope.
But sometimes the immediacy of the evidence is harder for clients to take. Looking at a significant other stumbling into a hotel room in Las Vegas in the early morning hours with their arms draped around someone else is very effective.
“It is hard to squirm out from that,” the detective declares.
I was surprised to learn that in an age of high-tech gadgets where we can get proof of people doing almost anything, Kirkman still relies, first and foremost, on video to serve his clients. While feuding partners might not have the highest regard for privacy, investigators and divorce advisors are taking a more moderate, and legally secure, stance.
“There are other ways that are legal, better and stronger,” Kirkman said. For him, effectiveness, since by his estimates, his agency conducts about eight cheating surveillance projects in the hotels each month, for clients all around the world.
In Nevada, GPS use isn’t as restrictive as in other states. Kirkman, also a former county sheriff, said his agency follows the laws, which mostly concern where the car is located when the GPS is placed. For example, you can’t slip a unit on a car when it is inside a person’s garage, but you can do it when the car is in the driveway or in a parking lot.
“GPS doesn’t give you evidence of behavior, but it tells you where they are going so you can get addresses to use for surveillance,” he added.
Kirkman said he’s familiar with the latest spying products, especially apps that surreptitiously read e-mail, texts and listen in on conversations. But he doesn’t use them because state and federal laws prohibit them.
“Our agency doesn’t do anything with telephones because of federal laws, and if someone resorts to that without obtaining correct knowledge, they’ve made a serious error,” he said.
Tricia is many things — a skilled nurse, wife to a stockbroker husband and mom to three cute kids. But she worries a lot: about her husband spending too much time at the office, how their kids are obsessing about gadgets — in short, that they don’t spend enough quality time together as a family.
She had no idea she was being tracked until Tom confronted her and told her things he couldn’t have possibly known about unless he was spying. She said he kept mentioning one particular paramedic, Kevin, who worked with her at the hospital, and how they would send each other joking texts about their jobs, patients and co-workers.
“I knew there was more to the relationship with Kevin than just work,” Tom said, according to Tricia. “I’ll expose the whole affair so the judge will make sure I get custody of the kids.”
Kirkman is able to take a measured stance towards technology in his investigations, but most people won’t likely retain their equanimity in dealing with potential infidelity. After all — if you think your partner is cheating on you, there’s an app for that. Why bother having “the talk” — complete with accusations, pleas, outrage and, of course, a box of Kleenex?
But any marriage counselor or therapist will tell you: the first step in dealing with any crisis of marriage — and especially a potential divorce — is to discuss it openly and honestly. “The golden rule in divorce is: you have to own it. The biggest reason for failure in a marriage is not communicating,” Nan Cohen, a Pittsburg-based divorce consultant and host of radio show, “Dealing with Divorce,” told me. “So I say, ‘Let’s give that a shot’, and ask the other person what’s going on.”
Maybe the pain or fear of asking is paralyzing, or perhaps it’s been years since you’ve had an open, intimate conversation. So instead of confronting them — and our inner demons — when the relationship begins to crack, we instead gather evidence with technology.
Many cheaters, after all, conduct their escapades over smartphones, and according to the Daily Mail, snooping on a partner’s phone is the top way in uncovering illicit affairs.
But mobile devices can also aid and abet an investigation into suspicious behavior. A simple Google search for “spying on your girlfriend or boyfriend” returns results that range from sketchy to the religious and even the downright ridiculous. And, to make it easy for you, Google conveniently groups its spying apps in a one-stop-shop.
When Brazil’s “Rastreador de Namorado” app, which translates to “Boyfriend Tracker,” was released over the summer, tens of thousands of people flocked to install its spate of tools, which let you obtain a call history, receive any incoming or outgoing text, identify a partner’s location on a map, and even turn on microphone to surreptitiously listen to the surrounding environment.
Setting it up is simple: 1. Buy the app. 2. Get a code. 3. Install in on a partner’s phone. Some sites even give you tips on the best times to do it — when your beloved is showering or sleeping, for example. Google, though, quickly removed the app from its online store, according to the Associated Press, citing safety and privacy concerns.
If you’re spying with these stealthy apps, you can’t filter conversations and data to just the person you’re tracking. Anyone who contacts the “target phone” is exposed, too. So if you aren’t involved in a couple’s drama, your texts, pictures and calls may be read by a person you never intended.
“It wouldn’t be just a personal violation,” Tricia said. “It would be an invasion of the privacy of everyone who ever texted me or who I contacted with my phone.” Being a mother and a nurse, that includes her friends, family, and people she works with at the hospital.
“Think about the neighborhood tennis group going out for coffee, and then to find out that your marriage — complete with pictures and posts — is the topic of discussion,” Cohen said.
Both sides have a stake in ratcheting down the emotions, she added, so think twice before exposing everything to “nab” a cheating partner, especially if children are involved. But that’s not easily done when technology makes it so easy to gather evidence on unsuspecting partners.
If investigators are wary of using apps and tracking devices to gather evidence, suspicious partners should be, too. These products can lead to embarrassment and humiliation, break-ups or even divorce, but they’re also often illegal to use due to broader privacy and safety concerns. So if you think you have problems with a cheating partner, and think cyber-spying is the answer, think twice. You might wind-up breaking state and federal laws and find yourself is a much bigger legal mess.
If you don’t think you’ll get caught, presenting evidence gathered that way might incriminate you in breaking laws. Laws often lag innovation in technology, so there’s little to no standard in the legality of the evidence gathered through spyware and tracking.
For example, in California, among other states, unauthorized computer access, like reading a partner’s password-protected e-mail, can be considered a felony. Likewise, recording conversations can over-step federal wiretapping legislation. And using a hidden camera in places where people have an expectation of privacy — like in their home — may violate privacy laws.
Even if cyber-evidence is lawfully collected, it isn’t always admissible in the courtroom, according to Cohen.
Kirkman, also a past district director of licensed investigators, said clients will sometimes present him with evidence they’ve gathered on their own. “If someone else has acquired it, we don’t have problems evaluating it,” he said, adding that he does advise clients that if the information wasn’t obtained legally, they could be sued if they use it.
“I think [e-mail and texts] are gray areas,” Kirkman said. “After 45 years of being in this business, I don’t go into gray areas.” Besides, he points out, it can be very tricky to trace where those messages are being sent from. After all, when more than one person has access to a computer, it can be too much trouble — or nearly impossible.
Tom eventually came to his senses and backed off on his threats. As for his “evidence”? Tricia never went back to the subject of that chaotic phone call, so I don’t know if AT&T found a spyware app or if the mechanic found a GPS tracker.
While I’m curious, I suppose some things are better left unasked.
She did tell me her marriage was over, though. Tom moved out and they sharing the kids — sometimes shakily — until she meets with her attorney to hammer out an arrangement. I don’t know if Tom brought his information to a P.I., divorce coach or attorney, but both Cohen and Kirkman said they wouldn’t encourage people like him to lean on his so-called evidence if they do move forward in the divorce process.
The situation between Tom and Tricia reflects a reality for suspicious partners, who find it easier than ever to use James Bond-like gadgets to launch their own investigations. As I mulled over Tricia’s experience, I began to wonder if all this technology is making break-ups better or worse.
“I think it is making things uglier on the one hand,” Kirkman said. “But it also may be easier, since the evidence can cause one side to settle quicker.”
Technology can be useful in understanding what had happened, so parties can dissolve the marriage. But at the same time, they also give fighting pairs an opportunity for overkill. We’re driven by curiosity, pain and anger — not exactly a cocktail of good judgment — to gather more evidence, more salacious texts, more suggestive e-mails, that may be illegal and inadmissible in court. But often, that evidence can’t give us the consolation and understanding we so desperately need in those painful moments.
“People will spend huge amounts of money to satisfy that ‘need to know’, but it often does nothing for you in the settlement,” Cohen warned. “The truth always comes out in the end anyway, and often what you do during the process can come back to bite you.”
Cohen only advises those who have a very good reason — like a pre-nuptial arrangement, a family business or a complicated estate — to consider going down that path. And in general, the radio show host cautions forethought, so there isn’t much for a suspicious partner to find in the first place.
She offers a good reminder: “You may post in the privacy of your own home, but remember that you will be sitting in a public courtroom if it comes out — and that can be shocking.”
One thing these tactics surely do is fire up revenge, blood-lust and outrage — the least helpful emotions when negotiating a separation, figuring out the children’s living arrangements and dividing up assets and property. That can be problematic, because though it might not feel like during the divorce proceedings, there is life after divorce, and you will be there to pick up the pieces.
Tricia’s soon-to-be ex-husband backed off his foray into cyber-sleuthing — for now. The separated couple is negotiating a somewhat civilized dissolution of their marriage, as reason, consideration for the children and an eye to the future replaces threats, accusations and hurt feelings.
But I’m still not convinced cooler heads will always prevail, especially with all the spying options out there. They’re just too tempting, convenient and easy, like many facets of our life technology aims to improve. If I were her, though, I’d watch what I do on my phone, and make sure the device never strays too far from my sight. ♦