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Why you shouldn’t freak out if your spouse’s e-mail shows up in the Ashley Madison data

What's ripple effects of the Ashley Madison hack. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

It's looking more and more likely that a massive trove of data about millions of users of infidelity dating site Ashley Madison that hackers claim to have posted online is legit.

Sites are even popping up claiming to let you check whether your e-mail address (or your spouse's) is part of the nearly 10 gigabyte cache.

Avid Life Media, which owns the site, says it is still investigating the veracity of the data. But in the meantime, just because an e-mail address shows up in the alleged data doesn't necessarily mean your spouse cheated -- or even that they signed up for the site.

First, there appears to be a pretty heavy gender imbalance in the membership numbers, which means straight users probably had a hard time finding a connection. Robert Graham of Errata Security found 28 million men and 5 million women in the database -- and only male names when glancing through the credit card transaction data.

The hackers, who call themselves Impact Team, claimed as much in their statement: "Chances are your man signed up on the world’s biggest affair site, but never had one. He just tried to. If that distinction matters."

But someone in the Ashley Madison database may not have even been trying to have an affair: They could have signed up for the site for a laugh or out of curiosity years ago. If they signed up on a lark and never pursued an encounter, their e-mail address could still be there.

And they may not have signed up at all. Ashley Madison’s sign-up process doesn't require users to verify their email address, so basically anyone could have hijacked someone else's identity to join the site, as Wired noted.

But other data alleged to be in the cache, like credit card transaction information, might help someone confirm whether their spouse was an actual user of the site down the line.

And regardless of whether an e-mail account showing up in the data allegedly stolen from the dating site suggests infidelity, there seems to be at least one group excited about the breach: divorce lawyers.

Susan Moss, a partner at New York law firm Chemtob Moss & Forman, said in an e-mailed statement: "With this release of data, every curious spouse in America is going to check to see if their partner is on this list! This will lead to an influx of more divorces -- or at the very least some very difficult conversations."

Her advice to spouses who actually have something to be worried about with the breach? 'Fess up. "The news always is better received if coming from the cheating spouse directly."