Marital espionage: Private eyes who spy on cheating spouses

In a waterfront hotel in Tampa, a Miami businessman sits gulping $14 martinis in a dim corner of the lobby bar. A young woman with dark hair and a red dress enters. The businessman approaches her, tries to shake her hand, then accepts an awkward hug. They return to the corner of the bar and chat for about 10 minutes before he drains his cocktail, straightens his Tommy Bahama shirt over his gut, and exits with the woman to his room. She is a recently married USF student moonlighting as a $250-an-hour escort and the man is married — or so I'm told by the two men showing me video of the encounter on a Smartphone.

Alan Payton and Tim Scheuermann look like the kind of nondescript guys you might see drinking at the table next to you or driving in the car behind you. Their job depends on them being forgettable. They are private investigators for the Investigative Support Group (ISG), and every year around Valentine's Day business booms.

"If they have a mistress, they're going to see her around Valentine's Day," Payton says. "Maybe a couple days before or a few days after, but it's going to happen."

Which makes V-Day high season for marital espionage.

Knowing when and where a spouse will likely cheat is important in the time-intensive surveillance game.

"The gym is one of the greatest places to see infidelity happen," Payton says. "Cheaters go there at 6:30 or 7 to meet up when their spouse is at work. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a partner coming out of the gym kissing their lover or getting into the same car together."

ISG sends out a two-man surveillance team to reduce the chance of detection, so the hours add up fast. Accordingly, its clients are usually well off, people with household incomes in the low six figures who are often going through, or preparing for, a high-dollar divorce.

But catching a cheater can be an easier task for investigators than, say, collecting evidence on a personal injury lawsuit. Because they're working with a client who is married to the subject under investigation, and who consequently has joint property rights, the PIs can do things like install recording devices in a home or put a GPS unit on the subject's car. In the case of the Miami businessman, the wife called the Tampa hotel where her husband was staying to request his call history. Payton then ran the numbers and discovered they all belonged to escort services.

While the PIs do have some standard surveillance equipment — black SUVs with tinted windows, high definition cameras, recording devices hidden in key chains — Payton's favorite piece of spy gear is his smartphone. A cheater may never suspect that the man texting a few tables away is actually filming him flirting with an escort. Similarly, while technologies like Facebook have made it easier for spouses to cheat, they also make it easier to get caught.

"It's amazing what people will put on their Facebooks," Payton says. "We go on there all the time."

The team has established a fake female persona on Facebook, but they deny requests from clients to entrap a spouse. They refuse to set up meetings or send attractive confederates into a bar to proposition a subject. They leave this kind of sexual espionage to their competitors.

More women contact ISG than men, but the company does get a high number of husbands and even some mothers-in-law as clients. A spouse's suspicions are often very telling, usually provoked by some minor change in a partner's behavior.

"He's staying out more, he's going to the gym, he's changed his appearance," Scheuermann says. "Those can all be indicators."

In a recent case, a husband grew suspicious when, doing the laundry for the first time, he discovered thongs. This struck him as odd, considering his wife never wore thongs for him.

But proof of infidelity doesn't necessarily lead to divorce.

"The way the economy is now, some of them stay because they have to," Payton says. "I've had one or two clients who will have an affair with the other person's spouse to get back at their cheating partners."

If evidence that a spouse is cheating doesn't end in a divorce, then why would someone pay thousands of dollars for this information?

"Sometimes we'll follow someone and they'll be fine," Payton explains. "That gives the spouse the peace of mind that now they can go on with their life... But sometimes women will get upset if their husband is just having contact with another woman. I have a case where there's some texting, like 'How you doing?' It could be innocent. We don't know. But the wife isn't happy."

Even though Florida is a no-fault state and infidelity doesn't necessarily impact a divorce settlement, it may suggest even deeper levels of deceit.