Betrayal By Cell Phone

Private investigator Miriam Tomponzi shows how her mobile phone opens up to send text messages, as she sits in her office in Rome, Friday, Sept. 19, 2003. Tomponzi's agency issued an in-house study saying that 87 percent of affairs in Italy are uncovered by mobile phones. The picture in the background shows Miriam's father, Tom Ponzi, who founded the agency. AP

If Romeo and Juliet's love story unfolded in Verona today, chances are that the young maiden would not hail her lover with a cry from the balcony but with a text message sent from her mobile phone: "Romeo, where 4 art thou?!!"

Italians, like most Europeans, are text-message obsessed. And this is having an unexpected consequence: Mobile phones have become a leading giveaway of Italians' secret affairs, with amorous messages and inexplicable call records stored in phone memory for any suspicious spouse to peruse.

Divorce lawyers rub their hands together at the phenomenon, publications have warned readers to watch out, and one private investigator has issued a list of "Five Golden Rules" on how to cheat with a cell phone and not get caught.

Antonella, a 19-year-old art student who declined to give her last name, recounted an ugly experience involving a boyfriend and a mobile.

"We were looking at the cell phone together because he was expecting a message from a relative," she said. "Instead, it was from a girl saying she'd had a lovely time with him last night and sending him lots of kisses."

Their breakup came soon after.

Private eye Miriam Tomponzi said mobiles are to blame for 87 percent of discovered affairs in Italy, according to an in-house study. As an antidote, her agency has offered up its five rules to avoid discovery.

One trick is to delete call records from phone memory, as well as text messages — "even the most beautiful," the agency advises wistfully. Another technique is to secretly turn off the ringing mobile, and then fake a perfectly normal work conversation into the dead handset.

"Practice this by yourself in a closed room in front of a mirror and in a loud voice," the agency exhorts.

Tomponzi, speaking in an office stuffed with old-school sleuthing tools like the magnifying glass, explained why this very modern messaging device appeals to the unfaithful.

"Say I'm talking to you, I can write a text message to my lover without you realizing. I send it calmly, it's done. But a phone call I couldn't do, right? 'Amore, I love you, I want you' — written I can do it, verbally I can't," Tomponzi said. "This is the convenience of the short messages."

Divorce lawyer Cesare Rimini said text messages have taken the place once held by love letters.

"Secret affairs are discovered by what? Through communication," Rimini said. "Communication at one time was letters — I've joked that it was once even Morse code. Today, the methods of communication are these."

That mobiles should eventually intersect with love in Italy is not surprising.

Rarely does a crowd of Italians gather without at least one punching in a cell-phone text message. The telltale beep of an incoming message will send most in the crowd fumbling excitedly for their phones. It is like passing notes in school, only on a national level.

Even holier circles have taken it up: The Vatican now sends urgent notes to journalists using phone messaging.

Within Europe, Italy has one of the highest levels of mobile phone usage, with market penetration of 92.4 percent — 53 million mobile subscriptions in a country of about 58 million people, according to the industry review Mobile Communications. The United States still lags far behind Europe in cell phones, with about 50 percent penetration, editor Shani Raja said.

Raja points out, however, that the 53 million Italian subscriptions includes duplication — some people who have more than one account.

Often, the reason for duplication is that customers devote one mobile phone to work calls and another to those from family. In some cases, however, the reasons may be less innocent.

"It's not rare to see women with two or three microchips" — each one of which offers a different phone number — "for use according to the legitimate or illegitimate purposes of their phones," lawyer Rimini said.

Mobile operator Vodafone Omnitel has made life easier for those seeking multiple numbers, with a service called Alter Ego, which gives subscribers two separate numbers on the same microchip.

Asked about the cheating possibilities this offers, Vodafone spokeswoman Silvia de Blasio said: "It's not a service created with that aim."

"Services that you have on your mobile phone help your mobility, and allow you to have a more easy life — more easy, but not necessarily to betray your wife or husband," she said. "Maybe it's also useful for that, I don't know. In their private life, our clients do what they want."
  • Lauren Johnston

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