When Tom found out last month that the infidelity dating website Ashley Madison had been hacked, he almost threw up. Tom had been using the site for years to cheat on his wife of over two decades. He immediately deleted his account and prayed that she would never find out.
This week, after a hacking group going by the name “Impact Team” made good on a threat to leak information about Ashley Madison members if the site wasn’t taken down, Tom expects exposure is imminent. His name, home address, e-mail address and the last four digits of his credit card number were included in the leaked files along with that of millions of other users. If his wife visited a site like this one or this one, she could enter that e-mail address and easily find out it was linked to an Ashley Madison account.
“This will wreck my marriage,” said Tom, a Kentucky man who requested that we change his name for obvious reasons.
“The thing about this leak is that it’s a public shaming,” he said via phone. “It would be different if she walked into a hotel and found me with someone else. But I’m talking to a reporter in California who knows my name and address and that I’ve used a dating site for married folks. And I’m not a public figure. I’m a private person.”
I talked with two dozen current and former Ashley Madison users (most of them men) whose information we obtained through the breach. Many responded with panic to my e-mail request, unaware that the leak had even occurred.
Two people denied ever using the site. A couple were angry about the exposure, in part because they didn't get anything out of their membership; they said it was a scam full of fake profiles of beautiful women. Some said they had signed up when single looking for a no-strings-attached fling or just out of curiosity. Others said they had joined during a tough time in a relationship that had since recovered and they worried that the leak would reopen old wounds. A few told me that their marriages were probably over.
One user in New Jersey told me he had signed up for the site years ago because he had married too young and felt that he’d missed out. He met a few women on the site, and eventually fell hard for one. He’s still in touch with the woman he met on Ashley Madison, and still married to his wife.
Cleverly, he used a gift card to pay the site's fees, so the information contained on him is minimal.
If the information came out and his wife got it, he told me over e-mail, “I would be getting divorced, no question.”
A user named Larry told me that while he’d screwed up, it was a long time ago. The subject line of his e-mail to me ended with multiple exclamation points. The leak left him shocked.
“I thought I was over it, but nooooooo someone had to think they were doing good by letting the info out,” he told me via e-mail. “I don't think these people understand what they have done.”
Paul in Texas told me he had signed up while going through a divorce. He worried his wife would use the leak as ammo in court, even though he hadn’t cheated before that.
Another user told me he’d signed up after his wife had cheated but never followed through on any dates. “We're moving past this and this just has the possibility of dragging this out as we're trying to put it behind us,” he said.
Hackers claim to have targeted Ashley Madison and a sister site, Established Men, because of the dubious morals they condoned. The leak has thrust the private lives of millions of cheating partners into the public domain, potentially exposing secrets kept from loved ones and opening the door to Internet shaming campaigns.
Tom told me he's not sure whether he should confess or if there's still hope his wife won’t find out because he used an e-mail address she doesn’t know about to register. They were having marital problems when he joined Ashley Madison, but he still doesn’t want it to end.
Like many of the leak victims I talked to, he's worried what friends, colleagues and family might think of his cheating, too.
“Everyone in my life is going to be very very disappointed,” he said. “It will change their idea of me as a person.”
I asked him whether he regretted joining the site.
“That’s a tough question. I was very frustrated. But that doesn’t make it right,” he said. “The repercussions of this are enormous to me. But there’s no one to blame for it but myself. This is self inflicted.”