This story is part of When Spies Come Home , a Motherboard series about powerful surveillance software and other techniques ordinary people use to spy on their loved ones.
For years, jealous lovers have bought malware to monitor their spouses' mobile phone or computer. But there's another often overlooked and related market that also brings surveillance much closer to home: paranoid men and women who hire cheap hackers to grab their spouses' email or social media passwords.
Although the hackers and their techniques may not be very technically sophisticated, these services can still present a threat, especially to those who may already be in an abusive relationship.
"We will stand by your side when the most loved and believed [sic] one's in your life cheat on you," one site, called Hire An Hacker [sic], reads. "Hire a hacker to clear all your doubts, and live peacefully."
These sort of sites aren't hard to find: a quick Google of certain phrases will likely return at least a few relevant results, and prices hover around $50 to a few hundred dollars. But even sites that don't explicitly market to jealous lovers may provide the desired services anyway.
Posing as a potential buyer on NeighborhoodHacker.com, Motherboard asked a customer support staffer whether the site offered hackers to find out if a wife was having an affair.
"May I know what account or website would you like us to hack for you to find out?" the representative replied. When Motherboard said the imaginary target would be a Hotmail or Facebook account, the employee said "In general, we can help you with that issue."
Of course, there is no guarantee a customer of one of these so-called hackers will get what they pay for. One scam report site flagged Hire An Hacker as a fraud, the owners of which allegedly demand more cash than advertised. But the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have targeted and successfully prosecuted the administrators of several other very similar websites which were certainly hacking for clients.
One of those sites was needapassword.com, whose owners broke into nearly 6,000 email accounts, according to a 2014 Department of Justice press release announcing related charges.
"Is your spouse cheating with someone? Do you know who they are?" the now-defunct website read, according to the affidavit. "You have the right to read the personal thoughts your spouse is writing to others." Authorities also shut down five sites run from Romania, two in India, and one based in China, and the US charged three customers of hacker-to-hire sites too.
Typically, these sort of sites are probably going to rely on phishing; that is, sending a phony login page or something similar to trick the user into entering their password. If you're worried that someone, perhaps a husband, wife, or lover, may hire a hacker to obtain your password, it could be worth locking your email and social media accounts with two-factor authentication. This means that someone logging into your account also needs a text sent to your phone, or a code generated by an app.
But, that may be complicated in some situations, especially if your partner's abuse is physical as well as involving digital surveillance. In many cases, the best course of action will be to contact a professional for help.
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