Troubled couples often try to hide money from each other, whether to spend it on extramarital mischief or keep from sharing it in a divorce. They will often open up secret on-line brokerage accounts or hide cash in a safety deposit box. Whatever the method, the hiding spouse is forewarned: Electronic discovery has made it much easier to track your covert activity.
There are many ways a spouse can uncover secret financial dealings. A suspicious spouse might go through their partner’s web surfing history and social networks to uncover traces of hidden bank accounts and business deals. Some may even install software that records every keystroke their spouses make. Among the wackier tactics include replacing spouse’s GPS with a nearly identical one, allowing tracking of the vehicle’s location and even pictures of who’s sitting in the front seat. Smartphones, as well, are playing an increasingly large role in discovering hidden assets. Mr. Lewis, a data forensic expert in New York, says he recently worked on a case where the spouse enabled the “find my phone” software on all of her family’s smartphones, and quickly learned of her husband’s frequent trips to an ATM, where he withdrew cash she didn’t know about.
In addition to suspicious spouses, divorce lawyers and forensic experts are employing new strategies of their own. Advanced search tools allow them to analyze thousands of digital bank statements, credit card bills and other files in the blink of an eye. “While in the past a paper trail might be hidden by a second set of books or the shredding of documents, the trail left by files on a computer is etched onto a hard drive somewhere, just waiting to be discovered” says Ken Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
While the new spying tactics are effective, a somewhat cloudier issue is whether it is legal for a spouse to use them, as the law is still evolving. It’s legal to google anyone, but it could be potentially illegal to hack a spouse’s personal password-protected smartphone or Facebook page, or to secretly install a GPS or a keystroke monitor. A person who uncovers information illegally could lose all credibility in court, and his attorney may not be able to present any evidence on that issue. In addition, the person could go to jail, while the lawyer could face fines or lose his license if caught using illegally obtained evidence. Caution should be very much in order.