- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

When Alan Rappeport’s girlfriend swore she wasn’t cheating on him, he knew she was lying. It wasn’t that she no longer wanted him to make his weekly drive from Atlantic City, N.J., into Manhattan to see her. It wasn’t that his friends had seen her around town with other guys.

He knew she had gone out with another man and spent the night at his house. He knew because he had broken into her e-mail account and read about it.

“She was mad about me reading her e-mail,” says the 24-year-old journalist, “but she wasn’t nearly as mad as I was for being cheated on. We were both wrong, but I felt mine was the lesser of the wrongs.”

If all is fair in love and war, cyberspace is becoming a new battleground. People aren’t using the Internet just to find love anymore; they’re using it to catch wayward lovers.

With a little bit of creativity and, on occasion, some moderately priced software, suspicious partners can become their own private investigators or, more simply put, e-mail spies.

“People spend so much time in front of the computer anyway it’s so easy to get curious,” says Elayne Savage, a Berkeley, Calif., couples therapist and author of “Breathing Room: Creating Space to be a Couple.”

Miss Savage estimates that one-third of her patients bring up Internet-related relationship problems in therapy. More and more, she says, the Internet seems to be the crisis that brings people into therapy.

“They find e-mails; they find an adulterous relationship. People are getting really good at searching where people have been on the Internet.”

Those searches are easier than some might think. Anyone who has ever written or received a compromising e-mail probably thinks a password will keep others from reading it. But passwords can provide a false sense of security, says Sreenath Sreenivasan, WABC-TV New York’s tech guru.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of guessing there are certain passwords people use by default. One of the common ones is ‘password.’”

Guesswork was the hacking method of choice for Mr. Rappeport. Logging onto his girlfriend’s account, he followed the helpful link for people who have forgotten their passwords. There, he was prompted with a secret question, and quickly guessed the answer.

With that, he was in. Once he saw the incriminating evidence in her in-box, he used it to confront his girlfriend. Both have since changed their passwords.

Mr. Sreenivasan adds that the informal nature of communication on the Internet lulls many people into a false sense of security about what they can say or do privately online.

“E-mail frees you up in a way that live phone conversations do not, and that’s why people get in so much trouble,” he says. “But people like Linda Tripp and Bill Gates have all been in trouble because of their e-mail.”

In fact, the very notion of e-mail privacy is misguided.

Companies have long monitored employee e-mail, and software originally used for that purpose is now available for home use.

SpectorSoft, a Florida-based software company, turns a significant profit with products like Spector Pro, which allows a user to see screen shots of all the activity on a particular computer including the text of e-mail and instant-messaging sessions.

Another SpectorSoft product, EBlaster, can e-mail the text of all e-mail and chat sessions on one computer to an interested party.

The original target market of these products was parents wanting to monitor teenagers’ Internet use, says SpectorSoft public relations manager Kasey Sellati. “Then we started getting these tech-support calls from people who were clearly using it to catch cheating spouses.”

Many companies test-market their products on EBay auctions.

In one trial, SpectorSoft started touting their monitoring software as a tool for concerned parents. When they changed the wording to read “Husband cheating online? Catch him with this,” Miss Sellati says, they saw a tenfold increase in Web hits.

The SpectorSoft Web site ominously warns that “38 percent of people have engaged in explicit online sexual conversation and 50 percent have had phone contact with someone they chatted to.” It includes testimonials from the cuckolded.

Miss Sellati says the company receives these testimonials a regular basis, “and some of them are just like wow. One girl was engaged and suspected her fiance of cheating. She used the software and found out he was cheating with 17 girls.”

Not all stories have such tragic endings. “We get notes that say, ‘Thank you, you saved our marriage,’” Miss Sellati says. “When a spouse confronts a spouse with proof, sometimes they go to counseling. They’ll say, ‘Our communication is better than ever.’”

Because e-mail privacy is vulnerable both at home and at work where companies often can monitor Yahoo and Hotmail accounts as well as corporate communications Mr. Sreenivasan recommends that people take accountability for what they say online.

“Before you hit the ‘send’ key: Imagine every e-mail you send as if it were on your company bulletin board, being read by your worst enemy, your mother, your spouse, even your kid,” Mr. Sreenivasan says.

Aron Danburg, 33, a technical writer in Houston, didn’t have to imagine that scenario. A similar one happened to him when his girlfriend found suspicious e-mail in his account.

He had given his password to his girlfriend, who lived in Thailand, “because I thought it was an important matter of trust since we lived so far apart.”

His benevolent gesture backfired. When she found an e-mail from the Hong Kong Tourism Board, she assumed the worst that he was taking someone else on a trip there. As revenge, she blasted the majority of his e-mail address book, including his boss, with an invitation to join him for a fictitious “sex and drugs party.”

Because she sent the e-mail from his account, it appeared that the invitation was indeed from him.

In a merciful omission, his mother was left off the recipient list. While the much of the damage done by e-mail spying is limited to hurt feelings and some embarrassing situations, Miss Savage says, the Web in general is having a growing impact on the couples she sees in therapy.

“Often the Internet is addictive behavior because people can’t stop themselves or limit their hours,” she says. “They’ve lost control. Time spent in front of the computer and the ‘pseudo-connection’ it offers takes lots of time away from the connection and intimacy the couple could enjoy together.”

Mr. Sreenivasan has one last piece of advice for when all else fails. “Once you break up, change your e-mail password just like you change your lock.”

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