A married couple has been convicted of stealing personal data and selling and has been ordered to pay £14,800 in fines and costs. Between them the pair were convicted of 25 cases of illegally obtaining and selling information.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which brought the case, said that it has begun an investigation into organisations which buy illegally-obtained information.
The convicted couple, Stephen and Sharon Anderson of St Ives in Cambridgeshire, used social engineering, rather than technology, to steal the data. They 'blagged' the information from organisations including HM Revenue and Customs and BT.
By phoning organisations and often posing as employees, the couple were able to obtain bank account details, income tax information and ex-directory telephone numbers of their targets.
The Guardian newspaper has reported that the pair were working for private detective agencies which hired them to find out information about specific people. Such information is often paid for by clients involved in disputes with spouses or by newspapers.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas recently issued a report in which he condemned the widespread use of detective agencies and private contractors to trade in illegally obtained and illicitly traded personal information.
"Investigations by the ICO and the police have uncovered evidence of a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information," said the report, What Price Privacy?
"Among the ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers. Other cases have involved finance companies and local authorities wishing to trace debtors; estranged couples seeking details of their partner’s whereabouts or finances; and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation," said the report.
"The ‘suppliers’ almost invariably work within the private investigation industry: private investigators, tracing agents, and their operatives, often working loosely in chains that may include several intermediaries between ultimate customer and the person who actually obtains the information," it said.
Thomas wants to see stiffer sentencing for those convicted of such offences. "The crime at present carries no custodial sentence," he wrote in the report's introduction. "When cases involving the unlawful procurement or sale of confidential personal information come before the courts, convictions often bring no more than a derisory fine or a conditional discharge. Low penalties devalue the data protection offence in the public mind."
Mick Gorill, head of the Regulatory Action Division at the ICO, said that the office was conducting investigations into organisations which buy private and illegally obtained information.
Jon Sanders is a managing director who experienced problems after his bank account details and mortgage payments details were illegally obtained. "My wife's and my personal information was gathered because of my business dealings but it has had a detrimental impact on my family life as my wife is very upset," he said.