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Cheatin' hearts, beware

Valentine's Day is for lovers _ and gumshoes.

Romance springs eternal today as sweethearts shower each other with red roses, chocolates and the latest in heart-dotted underwear. But cheating hearts trying to sneak off with a secret lover should keep a wary eye on the rearview mirror. Prying eyes will be out in force to break a few hearts.

"Valentine's Day is one of the biggest for surveillance, and it's all suspicious sweethearts," said Mike Brentnell, owner of a Clearwater private detective agency.

Brentnell's snoops will be shadowing seven suspected cheaters today instead of the usual one or two. Detectives with Joe Handley's Handley Co. will be lurking to snap pictures triple the normal workload. Many others are out there, too, but they prefer to keep under wraps their traps for hearts-and-flowers day.

Detectives do not know why so many spouses get suspicious this time of year. But most requests for domestic sleuthing begin rolling in big time right after Christmas.

"I think it builds because of all the Christmas socializing," said Frank Cota, a 20-year veteran of the profession in Tampa. "Spouses see each other in different social situations like office parties and one starts thinking "Hey, those two are getting pretty chummy.'

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Then comes Valentine's Day.

"On Valentine's Day the cheating spouse has some obligation to sneak off and see his or her significant other," said Handley.

Local private detectives remember some of their prey.

A St. Petersburg private pilot took regular afternoon joyride flights to a restaurant in mid-Florida but detectives found a woman other than his wife was navigating. A Pinellas County businessman was photographed handing a dozen roses to a topless dancer on his way home from work.

A Tampa wife confronted her husband when she had proof he was seeing another woman. He promised to stop. A year later she hired a detective to see if he kept his word. He had not. But she resigned herself to do nothing more about it.

"She just wanted to know for certain," said Handley.

Age is not a factor. Last year agents spent four hours of Valentine's eve in a Manatee County orange grove getting proof a 74-year-old man was engaging in a late night liaison with the widow next door.

These days surveillance techniques are being used increasingly to screen prospective spouses and even prospective dates.

It's not cheap. Rates range from about $35 to $50 an hour plus expenses. A whole day's shadowing often costs up to $500.

(But hey, a lavish Valentine's Day including a dozen long-stem roses, Godiva chocolates in a Valentine heart, and a one-ounce bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume would run at least $360. Add a romantic candlelight dinner and movie, and the tally rises by $156 to $516, according to the Associated Press.)

Tailing is not done by some Sam Spade look-alike. A good undercover operative looks just like your neighbor. As many as half of them are women. One area private detective recalled chatting with a cheating husband in a bar where the fellow admitted he was having an affair without even being asked.

"The easiest way to learn things is still in the streets," said Handley.

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