How credit unions used stolen data to snoop on customers
CREDIT Unions have hired private investigators who use illegal tactics to obtain confidential details belonging to unsuspecting customers across the country, the Irish Independent has learned.
The investigators, or tracing agents, have used false identities to elicit private data from a number of state bodies, including the Department of Social Protection.
The information, which includes addresses and social welfare details, is then provided to credit unions in return for lucrative fees. But department officials who handed out the personal information insist that they were "duped" by the private investigators.
The scandal, which is the latest to rock the credit unions, is now the subject of a major probe by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner.
Prosecutions are expected to follow, which could result in hefty fines for the private detective firms in question.
An Irish Independent investigation can reveal that the names of 468 credit union customers have been cross-checked by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner with the Department of Social Protection in recent months, amid fears their personal information was breached.
Following a lengthy internal probe in the department, it was confirmed that personal data belonging to 78 customers was provided to private investigators who gave false identities.
At least 12 credit unions are suspected of using stolen data, four of which are based in Limerick.
One of the credit unions, MPCC Credit Union, said it has since ceased using the services of private investigators after making a "conscious decision" at board level.
A cluster of credit unions in the midlands are also at the centre of the Data Protection Commissioner's probe. These include Athy, Monasterevin, Tullamore, Portarlington and Portlaoise.
Some credit unions have forked out €50 per single address in order to trace customers who owe them money, the Irish Independent understands.
Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney launched the major probe last year after becoming concerned over the manner in which credit unions have been tracking down customers in arrears.
After carrying out a series of audits on at least 12 credit unions, Mr Delaney suspected that hired private investigators were using illegal tactics to gather personal data.
But documents obtained by this newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the ease with which private investigators have extracted information from the Department of Social Protection.
Representatives of these companies, some of which are international firms, have been using 'blagging techniques' and false identities and have lied about their reasons for seeking the information.
In some cases, the investigators posed as state officials in order to obtain addresses and telephone numbers belonging to unsuspecting individuals and families.
They then provided the information to the credit unions, who used it, in some cases, to chase up customers in arrears.
The credit unions themselves were unaware of the shady tactics employed by these private detectives, according to the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU).
However, the Irish Independent understands that some credit unions have paid €50 per single address - resulting in a major windfall for the private investigation companies.
"In a case where a firm returns with 10 addresses, they are being paid up to €500. These addresses are sometimes gathered during a single phone call to a state agency," a source told this newspaper.
The year-long investigation by Mr Delaney is now expected to result in a series of prosecutions involving private detectives.
When contacted by the Irish Independent, Mr Delaney confirmed that he has been leading a number of investigations into the actions of private detectives and their communication with state officials, including the Department of Social Protection.
"I am very happy with the progress we have seen so far," he said.
Informed sources have insisted that the credit unions themselves were unaware of the illegal tactics used by the private investigators involved.
However, the fact that several are using private investigators to dig up details on their customers is expected to come in for criticism.
A spokesperson for the ILCU moved to distance its members from the illegal activities employed by private investigators.
"Credit Unions do not in anyway condone the use of securing information by illicit means. We condemn such practices and we will work with the Data Protection Commissioners and any other agency to ensure these issues are highlighted and that the unscrupulous tactics being used by private detectives are exposed; it is clear that (the) regulatory aspect of this industry requires significant attention," the spokesperson said.
"If a credit union uses an external agency or investigator to seek assistance in locating or contacting a member, it is very much after all other attempts to establish contact with the member have been exhausted. If any such external agency is using illegal measures to establish contact details for members, this is a serious matter which the Irish League of Credit Unions, and its affiliated credit unions, would certainly not condone."