LAW FIRMS, banks and insurers are to come under serious scrutiny over their use of private investigators, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is planning a New Year's blitz on rogue investigators who are suspected of using illegal tactics to obtain personal data belonging to members of the public.
A major probe this year revealed the ease in which private investigators, also known as tracing agents, were able to wrest reams of addresses and PPS numbers from State agencies through the use of false identities.
The investigators in question were operating on behalf of many of the country's credit unions who had hired them to track down customers in arrears.
The Irish Independent can reveal that the authorities now believe the use of rogue investigators is rampant in other sectors of the economy.
Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney is to carry out a number of "spot checks" in the New Year on law firms, banks and insurance companies.
Mr Delaney has built up a major dossier on activities of private investigators, some of whom are operating on behalf of companies based in other jurisdictions.
He suspects that firms involved in the legal, financial and insurance sectors may be using private investigators to gather personal data.
"It would be remiss of me not to look at other sectors," Mr Delaney told the Irish Independent last night.
"I certainly don't believe this type of rogue activity is confined to credit unions," he added.
Commissioner Delaney this year secured a series of convictions against private investigation firms who were using illegal tactics to obtain personal data belonging to unsuspecting members of the public.
His investigation discovered that a number of firms hired by credit unions stole data from the country's biggest spending department through the use of so-called 'blagging tactics'.
The so-called tracing agents, acting on behalf of at least a dozen credit unions, were able to obtain personal data from officials in Department of Social Protection without having to prove who they were.
The department has since pledged a major tightening of its internal control systems surrounding data protection.
But now, Mr Delaney plans to expand his probe to examine whether private investigators in Ireland and the UK are illegally obtaining personal data on behalf of banks, insurance and law firms.
The decision to expand the probe comes as it emerged that the credit unions at the centre of the data protection scandal have stopped using the services of private investigators.
Four of the credit unions were based in Limerick and the remainder operate in Meath, Dublin, Kildare, Laois and Offaly. Mr Delaney told the Irish Independent that he has since warned credit unions against providing the dates of birth of customers to third parties.
The data watchdog secured a series of convictions relating to the credit union scandal this year following two significant court cases.
In October, two female directors of a Wicklow-based firm were fined more than €10,000 for using "subterfuge" to illegally obtain the addresses of customers in arrears. The pair used blagging tactics to infiltrate the Department of Social Protection and the HSE. Some €7,500 of the fine related to their company and the remainder was applied to the two directors.
And last month, private investigator and former garda Michael J Gaynor was fined €5,000 after he was convicted of breaking data protection laws by obtaining private personal information held by gardai and the ESB.
A court heard that credit unions hired the ex-garda to track down bad debtors who were in arrears with their loans.
He provided them with "trace reports" in order to assist them in locating debtors for the purpose of initiating legal proceedings.