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Internet in Daily Life: Divorces - 2003-02-28

"Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today . . ."

Splitting from a spouse is never an easy thing, emotionally, but in many divorces, the Internet has made the process more efficient and cheaper.

Lindsey Short, a past president of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is one of fourteen attorneys in the largest family-law firm in Houston, Texas. He says the firm, which handles many high-profile divorce cases, has all but done away with its library of law books, thanks to the Internet. "We have very few books, and we probably have some of the more complex matrimonial cases in the country," he says. "We do our research online. We hire experts through Internet resources, investigation analysts. So we use the Internet dramatically, daily."

Until firms like his learned to use the Internet, he says, only wealthy, or what he calls "silk-stocking" law firms could afford to hire the teams of experts and private investigators that are sometimes required, especially when rich, prominent people divorce. "The ability to investigate assets and their existence and where they are, you can do that sittin' at your desk today," he says. "Now a solo practitioner can compete with a 1,000-person law firm."

While some marriages end amicably, other divorces are bitter, especially those in which one spouse has been unfaithful. Lindsey Short says the Internet has worsened this problem, increasing marital infidelity by offering straying partners many temptations, including websites catering to sexual fantasies that some spouses turn into reality. "Now there's an opportunity not only to have what's come to be called 'cybersex' but to go further than that and actually establish personal relationships that would have been difficult, impossible, dangerous," he says. "These relationships are easy to find, and they translate to an extremely dangerous sort of situation."

When one spouse is suspicious of the other, or thinking about divorce and eager to discover what monetary assets a spouse may be hiding, divorce attorneys turn the Internet into an investigative tool. They hire quite a different kind of private investigator, or "private eye," than the Hollywood version of the "gumshoe" detective who follows people and knocks on 100 doors, seeking information on a case.

Curt Bryson, a Portland, Oregon, computer security consultant and former U.S. Air Force investigator, says that today, many "private eyes" are instead sophisticated Internet sleuths. The time they spend, and therefore the costs that get billed to a client, are often a fraction of what detective work would have cost in the past.

Mr. Bryson says cheating spouses or those who may be engaged in criminal behavior usually leave a trail, not on paper but in cyberspace. "Folks tend to open their mouths a lot more than they probably should on the worldwide Web or relay chat or other forms of human communication on the Net - Web forum posts, that kind of thing," he says. "They just leave a plethora of information there. Now there are tools out there that are used to hide your tracks. But typically those aren't a 100 percent [effective]. There's still a lot that an investigator can do, or a forensics person can do."

Indeed, many private eyes now advertise their services on the Internet by calling themselves "computer forensics experts."

Curt Bryson says it's usually not necessary, any longer, for a suspicious spouse to sneak an investigator into the house to tap into a spouse's computer in search of evidence of infidelity or wrongdoing. "It's not just the bad guy's machine that has evidence," he says. "You know, we have machines on the corporate side or out in the government arena. That's where evidence may lie as well."

Dan Cohn, who is president of the Docusearch investigative service, put his company online in 1996. Almost overnight, he says, it changed from a small firm, looking for clients near its Virginia office, to a nationwide company offering 80 or 90 different kinds of searches. "If you have a telephone number, and you don't know who belongs to that telephone number, we can find out," he says. "If you have an address, and you want to find a telephone number that goes with that address, we can find out. If you're trying to locate somebody, we can find that person for you."

What's the secret, say, to tracking down a spouse who has departed suddenly, perhaps with the children and almost certainly with some family assets? Dan Cohn says, once again, even carefully conniving people overlook things. "They probably have phone service or electric service that they are canceling," he says. "They will often give those utilities their forwarding address to receive their deposit back, or their final bill."

And the Internet is a useful tool for finding many of these records. But private detective Cohn, consultant Bryson, and others advise even avid Internet users to watch out for a multitude of what they call "quickie" investigative services that have sprouted on the Net. "The majority of those, you know, where it's saying, 'Be your own Internet detective,' those kinds of things, they're not giving you a whole heck of a lot you can't do with about fifteen or twenty minutes' worth of research using something as simple as [the Internet search engine] Google," he says.

Lest one think that the Internet is valuable only for couples who are going their separate ways, matrimonial lawyer Lindsey Short in Houston points out that the Net is also a jackpot of websites that can save a marriage. He says there are sites for counselors, religious advisers - and even sex therapists.