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Dirty Laundry: The science of infidelity detection.

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Every day, total strangers send Caroline Caskey semen-stained underwear in the mail. As the CEO and founder of Identigene, a Houston-based company that specializes in human identity testing, her job is to provide smoking-gun evidence for people who believe their lover is cheating on them. She uses the same DNA-sequencing techniques employed by criminal prosecutors; Access to her craft, still fairly exclusive in the Clinton era, is now available to anyone with $400 and enough bravado to actually have it done. "I bet a lot of people would get some resolution on their concerns and suspicions if they knew this testing was available," she says. — Kate Sullivan

What’s the process when you receive an article in the mail to be tested?
We’ll usually do a semen detection test first, then a DNA test. That’s just to try and save the client money. The semen detection is less expensive, and if it comes out negative, and you believe that semen has to be present in order for the infidelity to have occurred, then there’s no point in going into the DNA.

Say you did find semen in my wife’s underwear, and I’m pretty sure it’s not mine. Do I provide you with my DNA to check that against?
That’s right. A lot of people ask, "Do I need to submit a semen sample?" You don’t. We just take a simple cheek swab from the person’s mouth and compare it to the DNA profile from the semen on the garment. If the two samples match, we know it came from the husband. If they don’t match, then it didn’t.

Could I provide you with the DNA of a suspect?
You could, but unless they’re cooperative and willing to have their sample collected, most likely that would be a surreptiously collected sample and not legally binding.

So this technology is the same technology that’s used to catch criminals. How long has it been used to catch cheaters?
We started doing it seven or eight years ago, and I think we were among the first. I don’t think it’s that common, and it’s still not that common for us. We do a fair number of cases, but it doesn’t compare to, say, paternity testing or forensic tests.

What’s a "fair number" of cases?
Oh, just hundreds per month, something like that. Not thousands. I think the reason is because most people don’t know it’s available.

Of the tests that you do, what percentage of them would you say show semen-positive results?
The majority don’t. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I want to say maybe seventy percent [test negative]. And I don’t know if that’s testament to there being more suspicious minds than there are people being unfaithful, or if just means that [clients are] choosing the wrong garments.

How long is a semen sample testable?
Indefinitely, really, as long as it hasn’t been exposed to the elements — rain, heat, mildew or something like that. It’s a pretty resilient type of sample to test. You can test something that’s years old even.

You’re not testing for lady liquids, right? Just semen?
No, that’s actually not true. If a woman thinks a man has been unfaithful, she can take his underwear and we can test the crotch area for what we call epithelial cells, which is basically a skin cell. And if we do a DNA test and find a female profile from those epithelial cells, we can compare it to the wife’s.

Who are your clients? Is it more men than women?
We certainly have more men coming to us than women, though we have a fair number of female clients as well.

When you give clients positive results, do you include any advice on how to discuss those with their partner?
That’s not really our expertise. We do have case managers who will sometimes advise them to see a counselor if they seem to be distraught. But most of the clients, by the time they come to us, they’re clearly ready to take action if their suspicions are founded. They’ve gone through the emotions already.

Has anyone from your staff ever had to testify in a divorce proceding?
They’ve been subpoenaed, but I don’t think it ever actually got that far. But the results can be used during divorce hearings in certain states. Infidelity usually doesn’t have much of a bearing in a divorce case because it’s not illegal, but in some states it will affect the outcome of the settlement. For example, in the state of Georgia, there’s a law that says if infidelity is proven, it impacts how the assets are divided. And I know we did have a case where we proved that the wife had been unfaithful and it had a material effect on the outcome of that divorce.

Do you get a lot of repeat clients?
We certainly have had repeat customers who got a negative result the first time and they just don’t believe it, so they’ll test item after item. Someone who really believes that their partner is cheating on them will test multiple items in an effort to prove that.

You charge $400 for the first item you test and $150 for each item after that. What’s the highest infidelity test bill anyone has ever logged with you?
I remember one case where the person just kept testing and testing and testing, and we ended up suggesting that they stop. It was a consistently negative result and we finally told this person, "We don’t feel like we’re providing you any information that’s helpful, and we recommend that you stop submitting things." It was probably a few thousand dollars.

What’s the most common item that you test?
Certainly clothing, mostly underpants. But we’ve tested lots of other things too, like bed sheets. I do remember one infidelity case where we tested Ziploc baggies.

Why baggies?
They were being used as a condom or something like that. That was very unusual.

Why is a lab test better than a home testing kit like CheckMate?
I don’t know the technology behind the CheckMate kit, but most home tests involve a spray and a chemical reaction wherein something is supposed to fluoresce. And it’s not as conclusive or as scientifically acceptable as the process we use, which is court admissible for rape cases.

A home-use test I read about advocated using the test on teens to assure their abstinence. Do you think a test is a less confrontational way of finding out if your son or daughter is sexually active?
I think that’s something between a parent and their child.

Would Identigene accept a case like that?
We don’t always find out what the scenario is. We’re just testing Sample A against Sample B, and we would provide a result. So we don’t always know who we’re testing.

If a friend came to you with suspicions that her husband was cheating, at what point would you suggest that she try an infidelity test?
Gosh, I don’t know. I’ve never been put in that situation. The truth is that I do believe that having a suspicion and not knowing can drive a person nuts, and it’s sometimes preferable to just get answers, to get the truth. Then you can put that behind you, whatever that truth is. I’ve thought about this a lot more in regards to paternity testing, where someone is questioning the paternity of a child. But even for someone who is suspicious of a spouse, I do think there’s a point at which a person can get so wrapped up in their own doubts and confusion and anger about a situation and they don’t even know what’s true or not. Then they should seek the truth however they can get it.

To learn more about Identigene’s infidelity testing, visit their website.