Two private investigators hired by credit unions to track down loan defaulters were yesterday fined a total of €10,500 in the first prosecution of its kind, after pleading guilty to unlawfully obtaining and disclosing protected personal details.
However, it was also revealed that the credit unions gave them personal data, including PPS numbers, which they had no legal right to do.
The credit unions wanted current addresses for members in arrears, but the information they gave out enabled the investigators to make phone calls to civil servants during which a “vast amount” of other data was divulged.
Bray District Court heard Margaret Stuart, 56, and Wendy Martin, 45, of MCK Investigations, Trafalgar Rd, Greystones, posed as officials from the VEC and HSE to obtain data from staff in the Department of Social Protection and the HSE’s medical card section.
Tony Delaney, the assistant data protection commissioner who took the prosecution, said he believed this practice of “blagging” information was common.
“We’re not naive enough to believe that this is the only private investigator operating illegally,” said Mr Delaney.
“What we intend to do is to pursue this further, particularly with the data controllers concerned such as the HSE and the Department of Social Protection. This sends a strong message to everybody who is in control of large data bases to be mindful of the fact that they could be being attacked on a daily basis.”
However, Mr Delaney was also heavily critical of the credit unions involved — St Mary’s Parish and Caherdavin in Limerick, Tullamore, Portlaoise, Portarlington, Athy, and Monasterevin.
“The credit unions have a lot to answer for in this case and in particular the credit unions who gave out PPS numbers,” he said. “It’s shameful and shocking what they have done to ease the tactic that was going on in this case. Nobody in the credit movement applied any due diligence to the hiring of this particular firm, nobody asked any questions.”
Mr Delaney said it was up to the social protection minister to pursue any credit union that misused PPS numbers, but said he would use whatever powers he had to get credit unions to comply with regulations.