With her sensible shoes and quilted jacket zipped up to the neck, Ali Harris looks like a typical dog walker enjoying a spot of exercise and fresh air on a cool morning. Except… she seems to have lost her dog.
An empty lead in one hand, her mobile phone in the other, she knocks repeatedly on the door of an isolated country cottage, refusing to accept that nobody is home.
When a flustered-looking middle-aged blonde comes to the door, Ali explains that her dog has strayed into the woman’s back garden. Could she possibly have a quick look for it? Not only is the answer an obliging yes, the woman calls upstairs and a male voice responds, offering to join the search.
Sadly, despite rummaging through the bushes and frantic whistling, there’s no sign of Ali’s dog. And there’s a good reason for that: he’s in his dog basket 60 miles away.
No, Ali hasn’t lost her marbles. It’s just a typical day in the life of a private detective on yet another mission to catch out a cheating spouse.
On this occasion, Ali, 54, had been instructed by her client — a woman in her 50s and on her second marriage — to find proof of her husband’s infidelity. Armed with his suspected mistress’s address (a woman known to the wronged wife), Ali’s job is simply to catch the cheat in flagrante.
Ali Harris, 54, (pictured) works as a private detective hired to catch a cheating spouse and has had a 25% increase in calls to her agency, Miss A.M. Investigations, since the pandemic began
That he comes to the door — in his dressing gown — at 7am is evidence enough of betrayal. All Ali needs to do is discreetly film both husband and mistress on her mobile phone and she has footage for her client.
Infidelity, as heartbreaking as it is for the injured party, is Ali’s bread and butter.
Counter-intuitively, Covid has made her busier than ever, with a 25 per cent increase in calls to her agency — several a week — since the pandemic started.
Indeed, infidelity cases account for the lion’s share of those taken on by her company, Miss A.M. Investigations, although she also lists tracing missing persons, debt recovery and criminal investigative support as services one offer.
‘My clients are mainly in their mid-40s and above,’ says Ali. ‘It’s a time of life when people are looking at their partner and thinking: “Is this my best chance of happiness?” Throw in a pandemic and they become reckless about wanting to have some excitement.
‘It seems to have made some people feel quite gung-ho,’ she adds, thoughtfully.
‘I especially saw this in the early days. People thought the world would end and felt a desperate urge to enjoy themselves any which way they could.’
She’s not alone in noticing the trend. The website illicitencounters.com (for people looking for affairs) has experienced a surge in new users over the past year, with a survey of 2,000 members revealing that 30 per cent — more than 600 people — broke government guidelines during lockdown to meet a lover.
The question is how? Given working from home makes the traditional ‘sorry, working late’ or ‘last-minute business trip’ excuses impossible to use, how on earth are they getting away with it?
One of the telltale behaviours of an affair to look out for is humming – as it helps to distract them from conversations if they’re nervous – as well as an increased sex drive (file image)
The logistics of meeting for a secret liaison are far easier than you might imagine, says Ali, one of about 5,000 private investigators in the UK, of which an estimated 30 per cent are thought to be female.
‘Everyone who was forced to stay at home came to realise the importance of having a bit of alone time and space. So if a man tells his wife he needs to escape for a couple of hours because his head is banging from staring at a computer, why should she suspect anything untoward?’
Not at first anyway. It’s down the line, when the cheat’s behaviour becomes more suspicious, that Ali’s services are required, mostly by women.
Working as a private detective sounds like something from a noir-ish thriller, but the stereotype is pure fiction, says Ali, who lives and works in Oxfordshire.
In fact it’s a job that requires imagination, patience, discretion and empathy. Occasionally she provides a shoulder to cry on, but ‘most people are quite calm by the time they’ve reached out to me.
‘They’ve already processed that their partner might be cheating. They hire me to check they’re not imagining it — or for closure. Often they’ve already passed the most upsetting stage.’
Many of her clients’ experiences follow an established template: suspicion is aroused, say, by a husband jealously guarding his phone or taking an uncharacteristic interest in his appearance.
Depending on circumstances — geography, frequency of the lovers’ meeting — it can take as little as 24 hours to catch a cheat out. At other times, Ali can spend days sitting in her car on surveillance, waiting for that moment of proof.
She finds it interesting from a psychological point of view that many clients don’t actually want to view the proof of a partner’s infidelity and instead are happy to take her word for it.
MID-LIFE AFFAIRS: THE SIGNS HE’S PLAYING AWAY
One private investigator from Insight Investigations reveals some of the telltale behaviour to look out for:
BEWARE OF HUMMING
Any new physical behaviour, such as singing or a stutter — anything you’ve never heard before (and that they don’t realise they’re doing) — can be a signifier something has shifted.
It’s not necessarily a habit they’ve picked up from their new partner, but rather that it helps to distract them from conversations if they’re nervous — for example, if you ask them what they did that day.
INCREASED SEX DRIVE
In most cases, cheating partners have significantly less interest in their partner. But not always.
We’ve had many clients who say they had increased interest in sex, possibly to over-compensate for being less attentive than in other parts of life or because having more sex with someone else makes them want more of it in their marriage.
It’s common for the guilty party to gaslight you — manipulating arguments, turning the focus on you and making you question what you know to be true.
For example, they might say you’re being paranoid because you’re stressed — you’ve had a baby, you’re caring for elderly parents, or even because you’re going through the menopause — so you can’t remember this or that about your life together.
Frequent purchases of new clothing, going on a diet, or showering more often can all be signs of a romantic interest.
Plus, new hobbies, such as joining a band or sports team, may give them reasons to get out of the house for longer meet-ups without arousing your suspicion.
An increase in short trips out, such as walking the dog more often or frequent car rides to pick something up from town, is all about making phone calls.
Most contact when in the home is done by messaging but people do like to talk to each other, too — so they create excuses to get out of the house to chat.
Being suddenly over-interested in what you’re doing that day —and the busier you are, the happier they are.
More frequent questions such as, ‘How’s your day going?’ or ‘What are you doing now?’ Then, once they know you’re tied up, they drop off the radar for several hours (while meeting up with their new partner).
Have they dropped a new name into conversation a few times? Perhaps someone from work? Most people can’t help themselves.
Or do fresh names come up on their phone at strange times? That message or call from David ‘from work’ may actually be a Daniella.
‘When I ring them with the results, I prepare them and say I have something which confirms their suspicions. I ask if they want to see it and it’s surprising how many don’t. I think it may be because in their heart they already know.’
Uncovering affairs involves hours of patience (Ali charges £70 an hour). Tactics include parking under a street light, as it’s harder to see inside the car, and keeping plenty of leaflets to hand.
‘I always have a pile of leaflets, say for double glazing, and collect them whenever I can. That way, if someone sees you hanging around and asks what you are doing, you can say: “I’m just distributing these, would you like one?” ’
Before setting up as a private detective four years ago, Ali, who has a psychology degree, worked with dementia patients for Age UK. Fascinated by other people’s emotions and motives, she took courses in criminology and criminal psychology plus diplomas in forensic science, profiling and, of course, private investigation.
With her dyed red hair, cut in an edgy bob, Ali doesn’t blend in with the crowd. Do her looks ever blow her cover?
On the contrary, she says, they help her hide in plain sight. ‘If I march down the street in my jeans, trainers and bright hair, I don’t look like a sleuth. You attract attention when you act shadowy.’
That’s not to say she doesn’t have all the exciting paraphernalia of a spy, including cameras hidden in pens and on the lids of disposable coffee cups.
One woman who contacted her suspected her husband was having an affair and wanted to find hard evidence so she could confront him and file for divorce. His job meant he sometimes had to work away from home, but the wife didn’t believe he was staying in a hotel.
Ali planted a tracker under the man’s car that maps a vehicle’s location.
‘My client’s suspicions were right,’ she reveals. ‘I followed where this man went, meeting another woman, taking her to restaurants and even returning to her home.
‘The interesting detail, however, I found during background checks into his finances. He’d been running a profitable side business which his wife knew nothing about. Learning about his hidden finances helped her in the divorce proceedings.’
What satisfies Ali, she says, is helping clients achieve resolution — especially if they’re the victims of a particularly mean betrayal.
‘Once, I was asked by a lady who had cancer to find out if her husband was being unfaithful. She wasn’t sure if his behaviour was because of another woman, her situation or because the marriage was in trouble.
‘She was upset, but the uncertainty was worse, especially given her health issues.
‘Again I used a tracker, which showed he wasn’t where he said he’d be, but at a hotel. I went there and waited. It took a few days, but I saw him with his arm around another woman, clearly together. I provided the pictures, but the husband denied it.
‘At that point, I can’t do any more. My role is to offer proof. I heard from her several months later to say they were in the process of getting divorced.’
So how does having such a ringside view of infidelity in action affect her own relationship?
Married for 25 years to Chris, 69, and with one daughter in her 20s, Ali admits her husband is slightly bemused by her work.
‘I think he just accepts that I set off somewhere to spend hours sitting in the car,’ she jokes. ‘I don’t let what I do impact on the way I think about men or marriage. Everyone is different, even if patterns of behaviour are sometimes repeated.’
What matters is she can provide her clients with what they need.
‘I tell my clients I’m there for them — I’ll always listen.
‘But what they need is certainty. That way, they have a chance of making decisions for their future and, hopefully, gain some peace of mind.’