Exposed: Hidden victims of deceit
No justice as innocent parties suffer biggest devastation, writes Helen Croyden
As Lorraine (43) put her toddler to bed, she received a text from her husband. Instead of his usual "almost home" message, what she opened ripped her world apart. It was an explicit text and was clearly intended for another woman. "It pains me to recall the words, but it was obvious they had either had sex or were about to," she said."I went into shock. I felt sick. I couldn't eat. I couldn't think straight. I had so many questions for him."
When she confronted her husband, he claimed that it was a harmless flirtation with someone he had met. But weeks later, when Lorraine logged on to the family computer, she found a page open at an email account under an alias. The inbox was full of messages from women and notifications from a dating site aimed at married people seeking affairs.
"What followed was the worst few weeks of my life," said Lorraine. "I started to blame and question myself.
"I wondered if I'd been giving too much attention to my daughter and neglected him. He admitted he had a problem, akin to an addiction.
"I did my best to understand it. I wanted to whitewash it, press reset. I even stepped up efforts in our relationship - that's how much I wanted it to work. I thought, 'We'll get through this, some good will come from it'. But inside, I was devastated."
Lorraine's discovery happened three years ago and a year later led to the end of her marriage.
How many couples around the world face similar ordeals, as they deal with the fallout from the Ashley Madison hacking scandal?
An anonymous group calling itself the Impact Team went through with its threat to publish the details of its 37 million worldwide subscribers. It first dumped the data on the dark web, where users can hide their tracks more easily, but it didn't take long for the information to dripfeed on to the mainstream internet.
Several sites, such as HaveIbeenpwned.com, sprang up, allowing spouses to check whether their partner's email address had been input onto the popular affairs website. Within days, a counselling service was receiving calls from people who had discovered their partner's details among the data and had their infidelity confirmed.
Law firms have also been contacted by suspicious spouses since the leak.
Many have taken to the internet forum SurvivingInfidelity.com to express their shock and seek advice. It makes for moving reading.
"I had been hoping against hope that my husband would not show up on the list, but he is there. This nightmare never seems to end," says one. Others share tips on how to access the data.
The group behind the attack apparently has a gripe not only with the morals of a website offering an illicit playroom to married people, but with Ashley Madison's practice of charging its subscribers to delete information.
"Too bad for those men, they're cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion. Too bad for ALM [the company behind Ashley Madison], you promised secrecy but didn't deliver," the hackers wrote.
But public exposure seems a cruel means of delivering justice. As Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist, points out, discovering a partner's infidelity can cause more devastation to the innocent party than the guilty one.
"When you lose a relationship and you weren't expecting to lose it, there is betrayal, shock, horror, bereavement, denial, depression. It impacts on family, friends, relatives.
"In a way, it's worse than a bereavement. With a bereavement, you lose the future with them. With infidelity, you lose the past too."
And what of the danger to those whose details have been leaked in punitive regimes?
Data monitoring group CybelAngel says there are 1,200 email addresses with a Saudi Arabian suffix, where adultery is punishable by death.
Also included are names on Ashley Madison's gay encounters site, many from countries where homosexuality is illegal. Blackmailers have reportedly been trawling the database in an attempt to extort users.
The Canadian company behind Ashley Madison, Avid Life Media, has long defended its business principle, claiming humans have cheated for centuries and that it is merely enabling people to meet their sexual needs, free from emotional complications.
The founder of the site, Noel Biderman, told me in April this year: "Monogamy is counter to our DNA... What we've done is created a platform where like-minded individuals can be more honest and open about their intentions than they could be on [other sites]."
Ashley Madison's popularity seemed undeniable. It claims to have 37 million members in 50 countries, (1.2 million in the UK alone), reports a growth in membership of 20pc since March and said it had more female members than men.
Yet a source close to the FBI investigation into the leak has said that many of the female profiles appear to have been created by a small number of individuals, so are potentially fake, designed to reel in men (who have to pay to use the site, when women do not).
When Lorraine discovered her husband's secret life, she created a fake profile to try to understand why her husband would betray her. What she discovered angered her.
"They even give tips on how not to get caught. It's actively encouraging deceit."
Interestingly, Lorraine would rather have stayed in the dark.
She said: "I absolutely did not want to divorce him, but it was always the elephant in the room. I'm still heartbroken. If I hadn't found what I did, we'd have made it."