Frank Pischek's detective agency is actually an apartment in an old, white high-rise building in downtown Hilden, a town near Düsseldorf.
There is a large peephole in his door on the seventh floor. He doesn't want any uninvited guests. Mr. Pischek, 51, with blond hair and sporting a three-day beard, meets with us in a room that looks like a cross between a living room and an office. There are enormous potted plants, a huge flat-screen TV and gigantic binoculars.
Everything about Mr. Pischek has to be just a little bit bigger, including his business card, which states that he is a well-known radio and TV personality. The crest of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a sheriff's star are also printed on the card, giving the impression that he works for a government or law enforcement agency. "It's a modified police crest, so it's totally legal," says Mr. Pischek.
Mr. Pischek is one of the biggest fidelity inspectors in Germany.
His agency, Astrata, has existed since 2005, and it is based on a concept that sharply contrasts with the usual romantic dinner or bouquet of flowers on Valentine's Day. His agency specializes in proving that men and women have cheated on their partners.
Mr. Pischek receives between 30 and 50 such requests a month. His customers, he says, include "executives with the very biggest companies," along with real estate brokers, pilots, tax accountants and business owners. Some of his clients are "millionaires," he says, looking impressed with himself.
The market for businesses that investigate people's spouses and partners isn't worth millions, but rather hundreds of thousands of euros. Dozens of agencies like Mr. Pischek's can be found on the Internet. A search on Google for "Treuetest," German for fidelity test, yields 169,000 hits.
As private investigators, we search for the truth, but these agencies set a very deliberate trap. Andreas Simon,, president, Federal Association of German Private Investigators BDD
Over the last decade, there were on average 260,000 searches a year for the German versions of the "fidelity test" and similar expressions like "adultery test" or "two-timer test." This is according to Pamela Moucha of Metaflake, a company in Cologne that offers online comparison sites for singles clubs and online dating portals.
Based on the number of search requests, she estimates that the annual revenues of all agencies combined ranges between €500,000 and €1 million ($1.14 million), in a market dominated by no more than three to five agencies.
Other than search requests, there is hardly any reliable data on fidelity testers. The businesses are not part of an established industry, and there are no studies or statistics to describe them. Their business model falls within a gray zone that more closely resembles the detective business.
But classic detectives beg to differ.
"As private investigators, we search for the truth, but these agencies set a very deliberate trap," says Andreas Simon, president of the Federal Association of German Private Investigators, known by its German acronym BDD.
Detectives, he explains, examine situations and document whether someone is being unfaithful. Fidelity testers, on the other hand, entrap the target and lure him or her into an act of infidelity. "If you throw a piece of meat to a hungry dog, you can't expect him to just leave it there," says Simon.
The problem with detectives is that, like actors or journalists, their profession is not regulated in Germany. Any German citizen can open a detective agency. In Austria, on the other hand, the profession is regulated and anyone who wants to practice needs a license.
There were 1,600 detective agencies in Germany in 2014, and 150 of them are members of the BDD.
Not even the association knows how many offer fidelity tests. The agencies are not recorded in the Federal Law Gazette or Commercial Registry because most are one-man or one-woman operations. This explains why it is so difficult to find information about sales or profits in the industry.
A handful of companies have professional-looking websites, but many are poorly designed, lacking basic contact information – a sign of lack of integrity, says Mr. Simon, the BDD’s president.
But neither the German Federal Association of Consumer Organizations nor the Federal Criminal Police Office has received any complaints or criminal charges relating to the websites. Perhaps this is partly because no one wants to talk about his or her private life, and most people are too embarrassed to go to the police.
What all the agencies have in common is that they offer services designed to provide certainty, and they charge a hefty sum in return.
Whether a client wants someone who is blonde, brunette or black-haired, slim or chubby, old or young, Mr. Pischek can always find the right fidelity tester.
Whenever Mr. Pischek gets a call on his mobile phone in Hilden – not surprisingly, his ringtone is the James Bond theme song – it could very well be from yet another husband who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. In fact, Mr. Pischek has just received a new request, "a real sick one this time," he notes.
Customers call him from all over Germany, and occasionally from Switzerland or the United States.He charges significant fees for his services. A text check – "the least expensive and quickest way to gain certainty," as Mr. Pischek advertises on his website – costs €39 ($45). One of his employees sends a fictitious text message to the target, and the customer is later sent the text message log.
"A wrong number or random phone call," in which the husband or wife is lured into a flirtatious conversation, goes for €59, and €79 will get you a come-on through social networks like Facebook. Actual meetings with one of the people who serve as bait, in a café or a supermarket, cost €199, plus travel expenses and other costs.
Mr. Pischek maintains a staff of 30 freelance "employees," whose job, he explains, is not to "entice" but merely to "ascertain." They include women with acting backgrounds, professional bodybuilders, a go-go dancer from Leverkusen near Cologne, as well as business students and retirees hoping to earn a little money on the side.
Mr. Pischek's files include many different male and female types. Whether a client wants someone who is blonde, brunette or black-haired, slim or chubby, old or young, he can always find the right fidelity tester.
The infidelity business accounts for 70 percent of Mr. Pischek's work, while the rest consists of classic detective activities like observation.
His gross income was €48,000 in 2013, which was lower than in previous years, "for reasons of illness," as he explains.
Wolfgang Krüger, a Berlin psychotherapist, estimates that about half of all Germans will cheat on their partners at least once in their lifetimes.
He works 14 hours a day, including on weekends. His business is a one-man operation, although he is looking to hire an employee, and he also plans to develop a marketing department. "Once that happens, we can realistically achieve revenues in the €200,000," he says.
Wolfgang Krüger, a Berlin psychotherapist, has specialized in the subjects of jealousy and cheating for years. He has conducted a number of studies and, in 2010, published a book called "The Secret of Fidelity." He estimates that about half of all Germans will cheat on their partners at least once in their lifetimes.
Infidelity is not gender-specific, with the propensity to cheat being about equal between men and women, he says.
Mr. Krüger doesn’t think much of fidelity tests. "These tests are nonsense, because you actually know the answer before you do it." Fidelity testers can only be successful in a relationship that isn't working anymore, he explains.
"They deliberately use an attractive woman with physical appeal," says Mr. Krüger. The women are very skillful, giving the man sympathy and recognition, and thus increasing the chance that the "relationship" will intensify and the man will fall "into the trap."
This business model is daily routine for Christiane Schleicher, a 26-year-old former fashion model from the town of Radebeul in Saxony who launched her own modeling agency, "CS Agentur," in 2009.
She began offering fidelity tests in 2010, but she only accepts requests from women.
The business seems to be going so well that she has created a separate website for the service called "Final Faces." Ms. Schleicher is unwilling to reveal sales figures but, as she says, "you can make good money if you approach this in a professional way."
Ms. Schleicher, speaking in a Saxon dialect and smoking a cigarette during our telephone conversation, says that she and her clients develop the scenarios jointly.
About two to three times a week, she receives requests from women throughout Germany to test their partners' fidelity. The flirtations take place via text message, on Facebook or in face-to-face encounters. Ms. Schleicher has 25 "lures" in her database. "They're not all top models," she says. "I also have 45-year-old women with a certain amount of life experience."
The customer is billed for the service as soon as the payment has been transferred to the company's account. There are no written contracts.
But how exactly does this type of agency operate?
Kathrin W., which isn't her real name, tested her partner.
She had been suspicious of him for a long time. Her husband, whom we'll call Thomas, frequently comes home late in the evening, telling her that he had "business meetings."
But Kathrin has her doubts. To allay her fears, she books a text message flirtation with Ms. Schleicher's agency. The €50 package consists of 10 outgoing text messages. The details are discussed in several emails, which Handelsblatt has obtained, and a fictitious story is created.
The customer is billed for the service as soon as the payment has been transferred to the company's account. There are no written contracts.
Then the husband receives an unambiguous text message, in an attempt to entice him to respond: "Hi Thomas, I've taken the liberty of copying your number from our system. I've seen you at our health club quite a few times and would like to get to know you… Regards, Stefanie."
The target takes the bait. Thomas is curious and responds a short time later: "Well, this is certainly surprising… Who exactly are you?" Stefanie, the bait, gets more specific: "I'm blonde and 35. We've seen each other two or three times. And we've also made eye contact, so you must have noticed me;)!"
Thomas W. and the lure exchange more text and WhatsApp messages, eventually leading to a clear outcome: They agree to meet in the sauna at the health club – naked, no less. Of course, this never happens, because the customer, Kathrin W., is notified in advance.
The text message logs, which Handelsblatt has also obtained, are sent to her.
Ulf A. Hoppe frowns when he hears stories like this. "I've never given an interview, in 48 years," he says when we meet him in his office in northeast Frankfurt. In fact, he has turned down hundreds of requests already. "But the subject of fidelity tests really makes my hair stand on end," says the 70-year-old.
Mr. Hoppe has been working as business detective for almost five decades. His agency, Tudor, is one of Germany's biggest private investigation agencies and an institution. Most people in Frankfurt are familiar with Tudor's large electronic billboard at Eschenheimer Tor.
In the past, says Mr. Hoppe, people looked up private investigators in business directories, and companies attracted customers through traditional advertising and word of mouth.
"Nowadays, everyone can advertise his service on the Internet," says Mr. Hoppe, noting that many of these companies have only been around for a short time. Some have neither vehicles nor employees, and "they're just ripping people off."
In 1996, his mother lost money and real estate – and Mr. Pischek his inheritance – to a swindler.
He sees the fidelity testing agencies as nothing but provocateurs, and notes that often prostitutes are used to provoke cheating by men in the most egregious of ways. "I'm furious. These agencies harm the entire detective industry," says Mr. Hoppe, crossing his arms as he sits behind his large, old desk.
He doesn’t want to be lumped together with these agencies, and he stresses that his investigators merely observe people but do not actively intervene. "All we do is report the facts and actions, using photos and videos," says Mr. Hoppe.
There are often more than five vehicles involved when his company conducts observation activities, he explains. The company also uses specially equipped observation buses that cost around €300,000. Not surprisingly, the agency charges hefty fees.
"Of course, an observation involving several detectives costs a lot more than a cheap fidelity test," says Mr. Hoppe. The problem, he explains, is "that there is no legal way in Germany of dealing with the provoked meetings arranged by fidelity testers." In his view, the customers are "just as dubious as the fidelity testing agencies themselves."
Mr. Pischek, the detective from Hilden near Düsseldorf, takes pains to avoid conveying a dubious impression, distancing himself from "all the agencies that entered the market after me." He sees himself as more of a minister than anything else. "We try to save marriages," he explains, pointing out that he often holds the fate of relationships in his hand. "It's terrible to see how many people try to fleece their partners."
He too was in a relationship that ended in separation. His marriage fell apart when he was forced to file for bankruptcy with his former business, a trucking company. "I was making €1.4 million in annual sales," says Mr. Pischek. The company went belly-up after 13 years – when his drivers had a series of accidents, as he puts it.
Mr. Pischek has already caught two marriage impostors. It's a crime he takes very seriously, partly because of his own experiences. In 1996, his mother lost money and real estate – and Mr. Pischek his inheritance – to a swindler.
"My mother used to see the world through rose-colored glasses," he explains. She died a year later. For Mr. Pischek, fidelity tests make the most sense for people who want to put relatively fresh relationships to the test. "I would never do a fidelity test in a well-functioning relationship."
Caroline Biallas is a journalist who works for Handelsblatt Live, WirtschaftsWoche Live and other media. Christian Wermke is an editor at Handelsblatt Live. To reach the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]