High-tech makes it easy to check if a loved one is cheating

When it comes to infidelity, a picture is worth a thousand words -- all of them damning -- for those unfaithful in love.

These days, the same gotcha evidence can be obtained from hidden-camera videos, e-mails, text messages, Web camera interactions, cell phone calls, GPS-tracked car movements and other high-tech ways used to confirm suspicions a partner is straying.

Communication and surveillance technology has become so advanced for private detectives that the average Joe or Jane can be as closely monitored as celebrities and government officials.

In other words, you don't have to be as high profile as self-confessed cheater South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to have your infidelity exposed.

The Republican governor became the latest in a long string of political leaders and presidential candidates who admitted having extra-marital affairs. He revealed in a rambling, tearful news conference Wednesday that he was missing from his office recently due to a secret trip to see a woman in Argentina with whom he had an affair.

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The State newspaper in Columbia published steamy e-mails between Gov. Sanford and the woman.

William D. Hickman, chief operating officer of the private investigation firm Gentile-Meinert & Associates in Monaca, noted that the e-mails show "the use of any modern technology or device always leaves a trail."

"It's become easier to catch people with only a little bit of technological knowledge. Not only private investigators can identify [evidence] through e-mail, text messages. Technology has evolved to the point that certain things take very little expertise for spy work."

His firm uses a variety of surveillance gadgets that would have impressed James Bond to secure evidence of marital cheating such as tiny hidden cameras, computer forensics, downloading smart phones, and GPS systems that can track a car's movement in real time or in captured time for downloading later, among other equipment.

"The more sophisticated, the more evolved a business becomes, the easier it is to obtain evidence," Mr. Hickman said.

The advances in technology have proved to be a dual-edged sword for those who stray -- it makes it easier to communicate with a paramour but also easier to be caught doing so, noted private investigator Barry W. Fox of Barry W. Fox & Associates of Pittsburgh.

"Think back when everyone in the world didn't have a cell phone and if you were fooling around; to call your 'honey' you had to sneak to a pay phone. Now you just use your cell phone," Mr. Fox said.

And that same ease is available with e-mails and other forms of electronic communication.

"But with all of that you can backtrack and reconstruct what happened. It makes it easier to catch people," he said.

Robert Kresson, chief executive officer of Empire Investigation in Robinson, agreed.

"Whether it's GPS, e-mail tracking, call history, SIM cards on phones, credit card transactions, the advances have made it a lot easier compared to when I first got into the industry in the 1970s," said Mr. Kresson, who added that half of his firm's work is in domestic relationship investigations.

"I used to use a two-foot-long telephoto lens on a 35mm camera on a tripod that I tried to hold still while praying the film would develop and the exposure was right. Now everything is digital, everything is so much smaller, so much less expensive."

The firm has a plethora of high-tech gear -- watches, pens, sunglasses, key fobs and any other number of other seemingly innocuous items that contain digital video with sound recorders than can be later downloaded into a computer.

"The stuff is crazy and it changes every six months. It's hard to stay with the curve," he said.

He does still use one "old school" thing -- an old telescope that, given the right terrain, can read a license plate 12 miles away and a van with a periscope.

But, overall, technology is the key component in such work.

Of course, technology has nothing to do with why such high-tech private investigations begin in the first place -- a spouse or partner's gut feeling that love has gone awry.

Thus far, there's no gadget for that.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. First Published June 26, 2009 4:00 AM


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