SAN FRANCISCO — "Husband cheating online? Catch him with this."
With those seven words, software developer Doug Fowler hit the jackpot. He posted the words in July 1999 in an eBay auction solicitation, advertising Internet surveillance software that could help you nab that straying spouse.
Within four hours, 500 people had clicked on the posting. Within a week, 5,000 had perused the offer. Sales tripled in the weeks following the auction, and Fowler's company is now growing at a healthy clip of 15 to 25 percent per month.
With those seven salacious words, a software star was born. And like many stories of overnight success, the breakthrough was accidental.
Fowler, a software developer in Vero Beach, Fla., was trying to pump up the sagging sales of his Spector software, which records computer and Internet activity, much like a camcorder, and lets users play back the recorded information.
Prior to the "husband" posting, Fowler had targeted two primary fields: parents monitoring children and employers monitoring employees.
"We originally thought parents and employers would be our original markets and marketed to them exclusively for about 6 months," said Fowler, who is president of SpectorSoft Inc. "Then we got a letter from a woman who caught her fiance meeting several women a day on line.
"I thought it was a fringe use at first, until a couple of months later when we got more letters. That's when we ran the auction. Essentially, sales tripled over night after the eBay auction."
Spector's spying software can be installed in "stealth mode," masking it from the user. The software acts like a video recorder pointed at the computer monitor, secretly taking snapshots as frequently as once per second, or as sporadically as once per half hour.
Spector retails for $49.95.
Because it can take pictures so frequently, Spector can capture all chat conversations, instant messages, e-mails sent and received, all Web sites visited, all documents, all keystrokes typed.
The owner accesses the results by typing in a four-key access code, as well as a password.
And as you can well imagine, those results can be explosive.
According to Fowler, one SpectorSoft customer believed his wife was having an affair. Within a few days of using the software, he not only confirmed his suspicions but also discovered that his wife and boyfriend were plotting to kill him.
"We've heard a lot of stories about what people have found out, but that is certainly the most chilling one," Fowler said.
Deborah Pierce, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said SpectorSoft reveals some pretty serious societal issues.
"There are trust issues here," said Pierce, whose nonprofit organization champions privacy and free speech in relation to technology. "Obviously people are not trusting their kids, spouses or employees. To not tell someone they're being monitored can be very detrimental to any relationship."
Fowler said people who have privacy concerns should not use his software.
"We understand that some people may interpret this as an invasion of privacy," he said, "but, generally, people are in a situation that they suspect something is going on.
"I don't think anyone would argue with parents or employers (using Spector). As far as the spousal situation, it comes down to a question of whether it's better to have the knowledge of someone cheating on you . . . or whether it's better to protect someone's privacy."