Spying on your spouse is a tricky subject. First, the bad news: doing what you think you want to do, or following the instructions you get when you google “how to spy on spouse,” is probably illegal. At the very least, any information you gain by violating privacy laws won’t be admissable in court as evidence, and you leave yourself open to fines, prison time, and/or a civil lawsuit from your vengeful spouse. Just because you can buy those fancy spy tools and apps doesn’t mean it’s OK to use them. And definitely don’t hire some shady hacker that some anonymous person recommended in some online forum or comment section. Associating with criminals will likely bring you problems.
There are ways you can legally gather information, but some more bad news: getting the smoking gun you want will probably be expensive. To make sure you have legally admissible evidence that’s collected effectively, you’ll want to start by talking to a lawyer, and you will probably end up hiring a private investigator through them. Your lawyer is more likely to know who is reputable and does good work, and going through the lawyer may prevent your spouse from being able to uncover the investigation through legal discovery. A good lawyer will also be able to advise you as to whether or not hiring a PI is even worth it in your case. For example, due to the laws of your state you may have nothing to gain by proving your spouse is cheating, or if you don’t have a lot of assets or any children, then the results you can expect just may not justify the cost.
No one wants to hear “hire a lawyer” as the answer, but if you’ve gotten to this point there’s a good chance you’re going to need one regardless, and the earlier they get involved the more effective they can be. <i>If your spouse has not yet been approved for a green card, it is important you get help from an immigration attorney now, as you have more leverage and it will likely to be cheaper and easier to get yourself out of the marrige compared to when after the green card has been approved.</i>
If the temptation to illegally invade your spouse’s privacy is still there, consider that if you feel an urgent need to spy on them, really the relationship is probably already broken beyond repair, certainly without a lot of therapy. Unless you still have some hope for the relationship and are willing to put in a lot of work towards rebuilding mutual trust, don’t waste your time with this person any more beyond what you need to do to get a divorce. The best revenge is a life well-lived.
But if you want advice on gathering evidence legally, then read on. Most of this assumes that you suspect your spouse of cheating, though there are of course other reasons why you may want to gather information.
The first and most important principle: do all you can not to let on to your spouse that you suspect something is seriously wrong. While most people have the urge to launch into a dramatic confrontiation when they discover their partner is cheating, this is a huge error. Be on good behavior during this period: don’t pick fights about them being too secretive. You don’t want to act out of character, as being too nice may tip them off that something’s up, but try to be your normal understanding self. Ideally, your spouse will think that you’re a clueless idiot right up to the moment when you serve them with divorce papers, though if you feel you need to confront them before you take that step, it’s up to you. When and whether to tell them about your spying is ultimately your choice. But definitely wait until your investigation is complete.
Don’t tell anyone else that you have suspicions unless you have unshakeable trust in that person: consider only speaking with your lawyer and your therapist. When it comes to friends and family, remember the maxim that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. You never know who might be closer to your spouse than you realize or who will inadvertently blab something they shouldn’t. Also, be careful about going overboard with spying: focus on gathering the information that’s most likely to be useful. For example, if you know your spouse is cautious enough not to bring a lover to your home, don’t install surveillance cameras there. You increase your risk of getting caught when they notice the cameras, while being unlikely to get good information out of the action.
If you or someone else accidentally (or even intentionally) lets on that you are suspicious, and your spouse realizes that they’re being spied on, they will start being much more careful than they otherwise would, making the job for you or a professional investigator that much harder (and expensive). Your spouse also may take counter-measures, like filing for divorce before you do. And finally, if they are abusive, be aware that making plans to end the relationship can intensify the abuse. The end of a relationship is the most dangerous time for someone being abused. Even if your spouse has not physically abused you in the past, the threat of you leaving may get them to start.
Is there anything I can do legally on my own?
Again, acting alone is very tricky. Even if everything you do is legal, if you mess up and your spouse figures out that you’re suspicious, you make it harder to gather information. Plus, the law is complicated. It will vary from state to state, so I can’t emphasize enough the need to coordinate with your lawyer. The basic legal principle is that you cannot snoop on your spouse where they have “a reasonable expectation of privacy:” that means no listening to phone calls you’re not a part of, no accessing password-protected accounts if your spouse hasn’t shared the password with you, and no using voice recording devices (even in your home) to hear what happens when you’re not around. Laws in this area are always subject to being updated to keep up with our rapidly changing technology, so even if you see a lawyer in your state say online that something is OK in 2017, you can’t count on it still being OK now.
However, here are some actions that may be safe, that you’ll want to bring up with your lawyer in discussion.
-Consider what clues you can find among things you already have access to and through your everyday observation of your spouse. I realized my ex-husband was cheating when we received an unusally high phone bill on our family cell plan. When I began to review the bill closely to find the cause of the charges, I wasn’t even thinking about cheating. I just assumed he had made a couple long phone calls back to Peru. But what was actually happening was that for the past month he had been texting constantly during waking hours with an unfamiliar number. I called it from a co-worker’s office extension and got the voicemail of a woman named Elizabeth. I quietly changed our texting plan so we wouldn’t pay so much on the next bill and from there started to pay more attention. The night the previous week when he hadn’t come home, claming he had gotten really drunk with a friend, suddenly took on a different significance and I no longer took his story at face value. So did his unusual insistence the weekend before on doing all our laundry for me, when he had never bothered to help with it in the past (fun fact: this is a classic but little-known sign of cheating).
Anything that you have free access to, especially if your spouse knows you have access, should be fair game. You can’t hack their Gmail, for example, but you can read backups that are stored on a family computer, as long as they’re not password protected. Check joint bank and credit card accounts carefully, as well as any other accounts that can give you meaningful information. Do you share an account for making restaurant or travel reservations and do you see anything unfamiliar when you check there? Are bills arriving in the mail in their name for accounts they haven’t told you about? (Be careful about opening their mail as this may be an invasion of privacy.) Are they taking much more care with their phone and computer than they have previously, getting nervous about leaving their devices unattended or letting you borrow them if yours is broken? “Forgetting” or “losing” your phone and needing to make an important work call or look up something can be a great tool for getting access to theirs…or seeing if they freak out if you ask to use it for a second. Have there been any changes in routine, or especially an improvement in personal care or a new interest in working out? Are they interacting a lot with someone new on social media? Do you happen to notice they have a second phone or Instagram account that they’re trying to hide from you? Are they talking a lot about a “friend” cheating, or stories about cheating in the news (my ex was fascinated by the cheating site Ashley Madison)? Have they strangely accused you of cheating? Has a mysterious expensive gift appeared in their life, or do you start to see unusual objects like hotel keys or ticket stubs for events you didn’t go to? Do they keep a blanket or other unusual items in their car? What’s in your trash? Does their key ring include a key for a PO Box you didn’t know about? The information you gather this way may not be enough to prove cheating in a divorce case, but as you put all the pieces together, it may be plenty to give you the certainty you need to understand what’s going on and make your next moves with confidence. You may be surprised at what a careless cheater will leave just lying around, or what obvious behavior red flags they’ll be waving.
-Run a background check. Information in public databases is also fair game. Running a background check is common advice given to a suspicous spouse or a wary dater, but if your husband or wife has lived most of their life abroad this might be trickier if their country does not have a good and accessible public records system. You do already have some information from your applications with USCIS and can be confident you know major facts about your spouse’s life: because the US government is involved they probably haven’t tried to get away with hiding a previous marriage or arrest from you the way someone might in a regular American marriage. A background check probably won’t tell you anything about your spouse’s current private life, but you may find that there’s a part of their past they’ve hidden from you, or something that they’ve lied about. If they haven’t been transparent about an important aspect of their past, it’s more likely that they’re hiding something from you now.
-Try a service like InstantCheckmate or TruthFinder. Again, this will work best if your spouse has spent at least a couple years in the US. This goes hand-in-hand with running a more traditional background check, but these services focus more on information that’s available online, like someone’s social media profiles. There will be at least some overlap with a background check, but to be sure you have everything you may need to go through multiple processes and sites. See below for resources.
-Monitor your home internet router. If your spouse is the one who handles all the household networking, then this won’t work. However, if you pay for the internet you have some right to know what’s going on with your network. You may just be able to see what sites your spouse is visiting, but you may be able to see more than that. Do coordinate with a lawyer here as collecting too much information or trying to break encryption may cross legal lines. If your own tech talents are weak, you can probably hire an IT person to set up monitoring for you. But again, be careful that your spouse doesn’t realize what you’re doing.
-Install a surveillance camera. You will have to be careful here and consult with your lawyer, as this is an action that can be illegal if done the wrong way. However, you may be OK with placing a camera in your own residence without your spouse’s knowledge, as long as you’re not recording sound. Cameras that record the area outside the front entrance to your home are probably OK if these areas are publicly visible from the street or sidewalk (so there’s no expectation of privacy in that particular spot). In some situations you may need to notify your spouse about the installation, which would give them a clue that you’re suspicious and defeat the purpose. If your lawyer advises you to let your spouse know about the cameras, perhaps recent news in the neighborhood about burgularies or packages being stolen from people’s front porches (real or invented by you) will give you the pretext you need to get a camera installed, and in time your spouse may forget it’s there.
-Deliberately give your spouse space and see what happens. If you happened to go away by yourself for a few days or a week for a business trip or to visit family, a spouse who’s up to no good will want to take advantage of the opportunity (or, if they seem genuinely sad you’ll be gone or insist on coming with you, that may also be useful information). Though your spouse will believe you’re out of town, you can really stay in a local hotel so you can stick around and observe. Be very careful not to get caught: obtaining a rental car and a disguise that lets you blend into the crowd (no trench coats or purple wigs) while changing your appearance is not going too far, as much as that may sound like a bad sitcom. The more you keep some distance, the less likely it is you’ll be noticed. Keep in mind that even if your appearance has changed, someone who knows you well may be able to recognize you by your voice or your gait. Getting caught trailing your spouse is exactly the kind of thing that can make it harder for a professional investigator you hire later to do their work, so it’s important that you’re not spotted. If you don’t think you can pull it off, it’s best not to try and leave something like this to the professionals.
-Show up places by surprise. Do you suspect that your spouse is telling you that they’re going one place while they’re really in another? Stop by the place they’re supposed to be unexpectedly to check up on their story. If you’re spotted, pretend that you found yourself in the neighborhood and thought you’d surprise them. Keep in mind that unless you regularly do stuff like this anyway, you can probably only get away with being spotted once before your spouse will start to wonder why you’ve suddenly gotten so into surprises or become so unpredictable as to leave work at 11 am to find them at the gym. And definitely don’t run off if you think they’ve seen you. Try to act like you were looking for them and that you have nothing to hide.
-Place a hidden GPS tracker on a vehicle that your spouse uses but you own. You usually have the right to know where a vehicle you own is travelling, though tread with caution as not all states may view this the same way.
-Legally this may be a long shot, but in some circumstances you may be able to gift your spouse with a new phone or computer that has tracking programs installed. Talk with your lawyer, and also keep in mind that if your spouse has above-average awareness of digital privacy, this could look suspicious.
-Create a fake online dating profile they can’t resist. This is a technique you’ll hear people talk about. They create an online profile for the man or woman of their spouse’s dreams and see if they can get them to take the bait. The main problem with this is you can’t create a compelling dating profile without photos, so you’d likely need to commit identity theft to set this up. But you can find (or pay) someone who’s your spouse’s type who will let you use their photos. We’ve linked a few services that do this in the resources section below.
Know that when you decide to start spying, you’re beginning a journey to a dark place. This is a method of last resort: I don’t recommend serious or extended spying unless you’re pretty sure that the relationship is over. If your spouse figures out you’re deliberately monintoring them, you will severely damage your marriage, perhaps beyond repair. Even if you’re never caught, and the investigation convinces you that your spouse actually deserves your trust, the secret may still eat away at you and end up damaging your relationship anyway. Knowing that you’ve tricked your spouse, you may never respect them again.
And a final word on letting go. While for a time it can feel powerful and thrilling, spying on your spouse will take a lot of your energy. The time you spend scheming and obsessing over them is time you could be using to move on with your life. So do what you need to do to reach a state of closure or build your legal case, but when you have what you need, stop and leave your spouse alone. You don’t want this way of thinking to become a habit, carrying over to future relationships. The methods described above are for desperate situations where you got too close to the wrong person and need to protect yourself, not for a healthy marriage and life.