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Forum and wire reports, Published January 10 2012

High-tech devices leave cellphone users vulnerable to spies

You could now listen in 100 percent completely undetected” – that’s the promise one company makes on its website to anyone who wants to eavesdrop on someone else’s cellphone.

Spy technology is now available to the average person who wants to glean cellphone information, read private emails and track someone’s location using global positioning systems. And increasingly, experts say, the technologies are being used by spouses and partners to track, harass and stalk.

They have scanned Facebook pages, viewed online Web-browsing histories, and examined cellphone records for proof. But some take it a step further, planting spyware on smartphones and computers.

Easy-to-use spyware can be installed on computers to monitor keystrokes, emails and passwords and to take screen snapshots.

And within minutes, software can be loaded on a smartphone to allow a third party to monitor calls, view text messages and photos and track a person’s location and movement via GPS. The built-in microphone can also be activated remotely to use as a listening device, even when a phone is turned off. And the phone user will have no idea that he or she is being spied on, say technology experts.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, suspicious spouses don’t have to go too far to get the technology. At The Spy Shop, located at 4325 13th Ave. S. in Fargo, owner Don Fischer sells the new cellphone spyware, in addition to traditional spy cameras and other do-it-yourself spy technology.

Specifically, Fischer says the store sells something called Cell Phone Recon, which is the size of a flash drive and is compatible with various smartphone models (except the iPhone) and most carriers. According to the device’s website, it takes less than five minutes to set up, and once installed gives the buyer access to information on another person’s cellphone.

Cell Phone Recon, which is sold at The Spy Shop for $199, won’t enable a person to listen in on phone conversations, but will give access to every sent and received text message and email, every incoming and outgoing phone number, GPS locations and more.

For people who fear a partner is cheating, this technology can be used as a way to put that suspicion to rest – or to gain proof.

Often, Fischer says, the customers who look into Cell Phone Recon are people suspicious of their spouses, although they’ll sometimes claim they’re just trying to keep track of their kids.

Fischer has also seen customers upgrade their phone plans and surprise their spouses with a new “Trojan horse” smartphone, complete with the installed Cell Phone Recon application, making it easy to spy on their every action unknowingly.

For spouses who are able to glean information and prove a husband or wife is cheating, divorce lawyers caution that the information is useless in court. Adultery can be grounds for divorce, but it means nothing when divvying up assets, unless the spouse can prove family money was spent on the other woman or man. It also has no relevance in child custody decisions.

A private investigator in Fargo, who asked not to be identified, says he sometimes will get approached by suspicious spouses asking about cellphone spyware.

The PI, who provides traditional services like camera or video surveillance, tells those people that they’re better off looking into buying spyware like Cell Phone Recon.

But proof of cheating isn’t the only motive for people to investigate a spouse or partner. Some people may be driven by deep-seated fears of abandonment or a need to control, said Mitchell Milch, a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in Ridgewood, N.J.

Increasingly, spy technology like GPS tracking and cellphone interception is being used like a weapon by perpetrators in abusive relationships, say domestic violence counselors.

One Bergen County, N.J., woman, interviewed on the condition of anonymity, said she was the victim of harassment, hacking and cyber spying following a separation from her husband.

He hacked into her cellphone and erased her voicemail messages, she said. He used a program that made it appear as though he was calling from the phone of someone she knew. He emailed “stealth messages” that would self-destruct after opening. On one occasion, he got angry over something she had written in a private email, and she wondered how he could have known.

“He did stuff I didn’t even know you could do,” the woman said.

He harassed her despite restraining orders, she said, and it was even more terrifying because it was nearly impossible to prove. “This was his way of still trying to screw me and still not get in trouble for it,” she said.

Patricia Hart, a victim’s advocate who runs workshops on technology and violence for police departments and shelters in New Jersey, said technology “has provided for perpetrators an enormous tool to be able to stalk, terrorize and harass,” she said. “Your lifeline, which may be your cellphone, can so easily be compromised.”

Forum reporter Sam Benshoof contributed to this report.