RICHMOND, Va. -- When the Ashley Madison subscription list was leaked last week, attorney's expected an avalanche of calls and emails from wives or husbands who had discovered their spouse was registered on the website, which was established to help married people have affairs.
Hackers exposed 32 million Ashley Madison customers' names, credit card numbers, emails, home addresses and sexual preferences.
That means the dating website for cheaters failed at the very thing its business was built upon: letting customers have secret affairs.
The hack has also revealed that nearly all of Ashley Madison's customers were men -- 90% to 95%, according to experts who analyzed the leaked documents. Most of the "women" listed on the site were actually fake accounts created by scammers.
On the local front, trouble has been brewing. Attorney Van Smith, of Smith Strong PLC, and author of “ Divorce and Custody in Virginia,” said he receives as many as 10 calls a day from people seeking a divorce relating to the hack of the Ashley Madison website.
The inquiries are coming from all walks of life and professional careers. However it is heavily one-sided in terms of who contacts Smith, and he puts these people in two categories.
He said about 95 percent of people who contact him are female, and about five percent are male.
"And they are either part of this multi-year problem in their marriage and this is the final straw," Smith said. "Or for another significant portion they had a relative good marriage and this came out nowhere and sideswiped them.”
Smith also said that this time of the year is usually slower for divorce lawyers.
The biggest reason is the start of a new school year, so couples don't want to impact their children.
But he hasn't seen any drop in business due to Ashley Madison.
Ashley Madison hack: Costly end of the affair
Though aggrieved spouses across the planet may feel that the hackers have performed a public service in shaming "cheaters and liars," the criminal law does not agree.
If apprehended and convicted, the brazen cyberthieves will face many years in federal or state prisons dreaming of computer-assisted conjugal visits. A variety of federal laws including those against wire fraud, extortion, racketeering and computer fraud carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison for a cybertheft of this magnitude -- not to mention strict state laws as well as laws in other affected nations.
The unusually verbose hackers who have published rather detailed manifestos regarding the Ashley Madison takedown are likely to be eventually tracked down by law enforcement authorities who employ their own sophisticated hacker advisers.
The unusual phraseology, discernable in the cyberthreats made by the hackers, may reveal speech and phrase patterns traceable on the Internet with the advanced computer technology now in the arsenal of law enforcement authorities. If you live by the cybersword, you may die by the cybersword. College students submitting plagiarized Internet term papers learned this lesson long ago.
This certainly doesn't look like a foreign state supported cyberattack such as the recent Sony hack or the recent massive federal employee hack suspected to be of Chinese origin. The so called "Intercept Team's" public statement regarding the attack has a moralistic rather than political edge to it.
The site users, the so-called "victims" who have already been trashed in social media as "cheaters & liars," do have legal remedies.
First, there probably are at least some in the database who are entirely innocent. Ashley Madison had no procedure in place for confirmation of email addresses and some imposters checking out the site before actually investing money used false email addresses. One particularly ham-handed applicant used former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's name with an obviously phony email address.
Even those who really did sign up for the notorious infidelity service have potential claims for "invasion of privacy" and "publication of private facts" in some but not all American states. The publication of their names, detailed sexual preferences and in some cases credit card information was clearly illegal.
Ashley Madison, if negligent in protecting such a sensitive database, would owe damages to the site members as well as media outlets who publish without adequately investigating the hacker data dump. Many legal experts believe, however, that the character issue hanging over the aspiring adulterers like an ominous cloud limits the probability of a big damage award from a jury. Enter the class-action attorneys.
These are the wealthy lawyers who took down the tobacco industry and who feast on securities fraud cases with thousands of clients, each suffering a very small "injury." They often swoop into action on the wings of their Gulfstream jets armed with injunctions and endless depositions. No ambulance chasing for these guys.
Their fees are staggeringly high because they are set by the courts based on a multiple of the number of victims. An individual victim with no chance alone in court derives power through numbers and gets a big-time, class-action lawyer to litigate his or her case. Of course, each victim here would collect peanuts but the class-action lawyers may well consign Ashley Madison to the dustbin of infidelity.
Just follow the class action math.
Ashley Madison has repeatedly claimed almost 40 million members in a quest to become the Facebook of adultery. Now those membership numbers may spell its doom.
Though site members originally sign up for free, participation in the site often required an investment of as much as $400 for "credits" required for clients to have any meaningful opportunity to make the acquaintance of a real "Ashley" or "Madison."
Even being conservative and discounting the damages to $100 per "victim" given their flexible sense of morality, the total damage sum is enormous.
That's $100 times 40 million -- amounting to $4 billion dollars in damages. Depending on the judge and jurisdiction, the lawyers could get as much as 25% of that, or $1 billion.
It's not as much as Donald Trump says he is worth but not a bad payday for representing millions of admitted and aspiring adulterers. The first two lawsuits have already been filed in Canada and Missouri and more are sure to follow.
News organizations, in the meantime, should be careful about publishing names of outed site members. If innocent, such individuals could possibly sue for defamation and collect substantial damages. On the other hand, "public figures" such as politicians and judges would have a harder time because they would need to prove that the newsgroup acted with "actual malice" unlike other ordinary mortals who need only prove that the failure of the journalists to properly investigate the story caused the damage to reputation.
And in truth while a lot of people are laughing at the whole spectacle, the potential for damage to really innocent people such as family members and children is enormous.
It is also important to remember that in places such as Saudi Arabia where gay men reportedly used the service to connect with other gay men, the penalty for homosexual activity is death. The more radical view of Sharia law proscribes death by stoning for adultery involving heterosexual couples as well. Sadly, there may have been suicides -- Toronto police said they are looking into two deaths they say may be connected to the Ashley Madison hack.
The case is yet another grim reminder that any information deposited in cyberspace is never truly secure. The law provides grounds for lawsuits against negligent companies but in a colossal failure of this magnitude, it is unlikely that sufficient assets will be available even if there are any real victims.
Determined hackers aided by ever-advancing technology can often outsmart even the most sophisticated defenses. Though the hackers may go to jail, embarrassing or sensitive information deposited with an unreliable guardian will remain in cyberspace forever.
If you really want to keep a secret, don't email it, text it, post it or ever turn it over to a company with a name such as "Ashley Madison."
Pretend it's 1963; Steve Jobs is only 8 years old and Hillary Clinton has never heard of email. "Madison" is a boy's name and an avenue in New York and believe it or not, communication the old-fashioned way is still possible.