Thursday 14 December 2017

Private detectives charged with stealing data from State bodies

Agents hired by credit unions used 'blagging techniques', court told

Margaret Stuart and Wendy Martin pictured outside Bray Court house
Margaret Stuart and Wendy Martin pictured outside Bray Court house

Mark O'Regan and Niall O'Connor

The Health Service Executive is the latest State agency to have allegedly been infiltrated by private investigators working on behalf of credit unions.

Personal data belonging to medical card customers was obtained through "unlawful" means by two female private investigators, a court was told yesterday.

The tracing agents, who are being prosecuted by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), allegedly "blagged" highly sensitive information from the HSE and the Department of Social Protection and passed it to credit unions.

The credit unions involved are Portlaoise, Portarlington, Athy, Tullamore, as well as St Mary's and Caherdavin credit unions in Limerick.

The two private investigators are accused of stealing the personal data to help credit unions track down customers, the District Court in Bray, Co Wicklow, was told.

These customers had either ignored or missed communications about overdue loan repayments.

The case, which came before court for the first time yesterday, follows a lengthy probe by Assistant Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney into the activities of investigators hired by at least a dozen credit unions.

Read more: Public 'unsettled' by stolen data scandal - minister

Mr Delaney told the court that the private investigation firm MCK Rentals Limited, and its directors, Margaret Stuart and Wendy Martin, face 23 charges.

He said credit unions had hired the company to "trace people" and alleged the information was obtained through "unlawful means".

"They contacted the Department of Social Protection by telephone, misrepresenting who they were," he claimed.

They were "blagging" the person on the other end of the telephone in order to obtain information, he said.

"Other charges relate to obtaining information from the Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS) which is the section of the Health Service Executive (HSE), that handles medical cards and that sort of thing."

By misrepresenting who they were, they were able to acquire "addresses" and then "pass that information back on to credit unions," he said.

It is alleged the company, and the defendants, are in breach of the Data Protection legislation.

This could carry a potential fine of up to €3,000 per conviction.

Read more: Lenders axe detectives after data probe revealed

Margaret Stuart, from Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, and co-accused Wendy Martin, from Ballybrack, Co Dublin, did not give evidence during the hearing.

Patrick McCormack of Maguire McNeice solicitors, representing the defendants, told the court they had received "substantial disclosure documents" from the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner last week.

Mr McCormack requested an adjournment of four weeks.

Sophie More O'Ferrall of Philip Lee solicitors, for the Data Protection Commissioner, said her client had no objection to the adjournment.

Mr Justice William Early queried whether the offences were indictable. Ms O'Ferrall told the judge that the Data Protection Commissioner had directed summary prosecution instead.

The judge said he was somewhat hesitantly accepting jurisdiction.

The case was adjourned until October 6.

Irish Independent

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