Are your personal details already for sale?

Hundreds of thousands of personal details are being bought and sold - including your name, address, how many credit cards you have, and details of the banks you have dealings with. And what's worse is that it's all entirely legal.

So how could you be at risk? And what can you do about it?

Cold calls
The companies to blame are so-called lead generation businesses. They gather information about you and then sell them off to the highest bidder. As with every market there are the good guys and the bad guys. The good ones will make everything entirely clear to you and will only sell to certain firms. The bad guys will cheat you out of your details and then sell them on to whoever offers the most money.

The Office of Fair Trading has found firms who cold call customers and send voice messages, texts and emails in order to harvest data. It has also warned of underhand tactics, including some who imply that they are in some way linked to the government. They have been found to make massively inflated claims, such as saying they can write-off all your debts, and some even run fake comparison websites designed purely to extract your details. Unsurprisingly a number are operating illegally, without a licence.

Risk of rip off
These companies then take the details they have extracted by any means necessary and sell them on, often to debt management firms or to those offering individual voluntary arrangements, which are like a diet version of bankruptcy. Often these debt firms are the ones charging massive fees and offering no more advice than you could get for free from a charity.

"It's a huge problem," Nigel Cates, deputy director of consumer credit at the OFT told the Daily Mail. "These firms are often targeting desperate customers and using sharp tactics to extract personal information."

So what can you do to protect yourself?
The first step is to take yourself off the list of numbers firms are legitimately allowed to cold call. This is done most easily by calling the Telephone Preference Service on 0845 070 0707. After you've done this, you know that anyone calling you is doing so by breaking the code of practice, and therefore is automatically deeply troubling.

The second level of protection is you. It's vital that you don't respond to these calls, emails or texts. Simply hang up the phone, they are out to get your details and eventually it could prove very costly to you. Cold calls, as ever, are something to be very wary of, and they should never leave with your details.

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