Criminal prosecutions have begun against private investigators accused of stealing personal data from the Department of Social Protection to help credit unions track down loan defaulters.
The move follows a lengthy probe by the Data Protection Commissioner into the activities of private investigators hired by at least a dozen credit unions to assist in establishing the most recent addresses of members who have ignored or missed communications about overdue loan repayments.
Hundreds of credit union customers are believed to have had their personal details revealed to private investigators who managed to dupe Department of Social Protection staff into disclosing them.
Such tactics are a breach of Section 22 of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003, and carry potential fines of up to €1,000 on conviction in the district court and up to €50,000 in a higher court.
The current prosecutions have commenced in the district court although they could later be transferred to the circuit court.
The Department of Social Protection is carrying out its own inquiry into how its staff failed to protect the information from third-party exploitation, but said it could not comment on individual cases.
“[The Department] treats its responsibilities in terms of protecting the data of its clients with the utmost seriousness,” it said.
“Any case where there is a suspected breach of data security is investigated and where it is established that a breach has occurred, the personnel officer establishes an investigation under the disciplinary code which provides for sanctions up to and including dismissal.”
The Irish League of Credit Unions said it did not know that illegal means of data collection were being used.
“If this was being done, it was without credit unions’ permission or knowledge.
“Credit unions would not knowingly employ any company who use illegal tactics and we do not in any way condone the use of securing information by illicit means.”
The Irish League of Credit Unions said it was not issuing any direction to its members to stop using private investigators.
“Credit unions operate as individual entities and debt-recovery policies are ultimately at the discretion of the board,” it said.
However, it said it provided guidance and training on the use of “tracing agencies” in loan recovery, while its guidance states: “Credit unions using these agencies must ensure that they always act within the provisions of the Data Protection Acts 1988-2003”.
The Data Protection Commissioner would not say if a wider probe was under way into unlawful accessing of State-held data.
“An investigation has been under way for some time into the activities of a number of private investigators or tracing agents who are suspected of unlawfully accessing personal data and passing it on to third parties, such as credit unions.
“The Department of Social Protection, which holds personal information in respect of every citizen in the State, is one organisation which has been the target of the suspected unlawful activity.
The department has been co-operating fully with this office’s investigation.
“As a result of the investigation, the Data Protection Commissioner has commen-ced prosecution proceedings in the district court against some private investigators who are suspected of breaches of the Data Protection Acts.
“While those matters are before the court, this office is unable to comment any further on the matter.”
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