Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors say Internet-abetted infidelity, romance originating in chat rooms and fueled by e-mails, is now one of the leading factors in marital breakdowns.
With the surge in cyberaffairs, a new market for electronic spying has developed. Web sites such as Chatcheaters.com and InfidelityCheck.org describe an array of surveillance products capable of tracking a cheating spouse's e-mails and online chats, including some that can monitor each key stroke in real time.
"The traditional detective hired to chase information is being replaced by software that's not terribly expensive but can give you 100 times the information," said John Mayoue, a prominent divorce lawyer from Atlanta.
"It used to be that when you wanted to prove adultery, you would prove it circumstantially," he said. "In the computer era, I can have something that is so graphic, so clear, there's not a whole lot of room for argument."
John LaSage, a Southern Californian, established the Chatcheaters web site after his wife of 23 years left him and their two teenage daughters without forewarning in 1999 to join a New Zealand man she had met online.
Chatcheaters — which offers advice, surveillance equipment and first-person stories of betrayal — averages 400 visitors a day, mostly women, LaSage said. His wares include $450 vehicle trackers and $100 computer-spying programs.
LaSage said he was devastated to discover, after his wife had left, that she had engaged in erotic e-mail and chat room correspondence with several men.
"I tell people to be careful — you have to be prepared for what you're going to see," he said.
Sandra Morris, a San Diego attorney who is president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said the spread of Internet infidelity has raised some complicated issues about computer privacy.
"A spouse may have a misplaced sense of entitlement to spy," she said. "There are prohibitions against electronic eavesdropping, though a lot of people feel that when someone's cheating, all bets are off."
Mayoue said federal statutes outlawing interception of electronic communications can apply within a marriage.
"A spouse does have a right to privacy even from his or her own spouse," he said. "I've been on both sides of this — it's the most compelling evidence you'll have in a divorce case, but also the most fraught with potential liability."
A suspicious husband or wife may have no legal grounds for breaking into codeword-protected areas of a spouse's personal computer, but may be able to justify reading an e-mail that was easily retrieved on a shared family computer, Mayoue said.
David Greenfield, a West Hartford, Conn., psychologist and author of the book, "Virtual Addiction," said many spouses who engage in cyberaffairs consider their online romances to be harmless.
"But the spouses of those who are cheating don't see it that way," Greenfield said. "It's often done on the same computer they both use at home. It's like having someone else in your own bedroom."
He said the convenience and seeming anonymity of the Internet have attracted a new breed of adulterers, people who might have been too timid to make their first forays into infidelity face-to-face.
"Affairs have always existed," Greenfield said. "But the fact that you can connect with people all over the world with relative ease and no cost lowers that threshold."
A University of Florida researcher, Beatriz Mileham, studied Internet infidelity as part of her doctoral dissertation, interviewing 76 men and 10 women who used popular chat rooms called "Married and Flirting" and "Married But Flirting."
Most of the participants insisted they loved their spouses but sought a romantic encounter online because of boredom or their a partner's disinterest in sex, Mileham found. She said 24 of the participants ended up having a real-life affair with at least one of the people they met online.