Scammers, fraudsters and nuisance callers can snap up the personal details of thousands of people, for a little as 4p per person, according to an undercover investigation by Which? It found that's it's alarmingly easy for criminals to buy any details they like.
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Which? investigated 14 companies that sell people's data. It posed as a dodgy company with plans to contact people about early pension release - which is a very common scam targeting pensioners.
The briefest of checks should have stopped these companies in their tracks. They would have discovered that the fake business set up by Which? was not listed at Companies House; that it wasn't FCA regulated - despite the claim it offered investment advice; and that it was not registered with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) – a must for anyone trading in personal data.
In fact, it only stopped four of them.
Details for sale
Researchers asked for the personal details of more than half a million people aged 50 and over, and were promised details including salary, pensions, homes and jobs. They were able to order forms or invoices from 10 of the 14 companies - although it chose not to actually buy any data.
Another firm issued an invoice for 2,200 names and numbers of people with a household income of over £35,000 at 66p per item.
One company sent a sample telephone list on which 13 out of 18 people were registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) – the central opt-out register where people can record their preference not to receive unsolicited marketing calls.
Another company issued an invoice containing bank details for 5,000 records at 24p per item with assurances that the data would be sent as soon as payment was made.
When Which? contacted the companies in its investigation, they defended their actions, arguing that they would have carried out further checks before sharing any data. The one company that shared sample data admitted that it 'did not carry out the necessary checks on this occasion'.
Harry Rose, Which? Money Editor, said: "Our investigation highlights that sensitive personal and financial data is being traded on a huge scale, with some companies apparently willing to sell to anyone who comes calling."
The Information Commissioner is supposed to oversee these companies, and clamp down on any concerning activities. It has seen the report, and we can expect it to follow up with the companies concerned.
However, we shouldn't rely entirely on other people to keep our data private. It's essential that we take steps to do so as well. Personal information can end up in the hands of list brokers if people have entered an online competition or answered a lifestyle survey. If you are sending any details for this purpose, it's important to check the small print to see how any information can be used. In most cases you can tick a box to say that you don't want your details shared, but in some instances sharing details is a condition of entering the competition. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth paying this price.
Rose suggests: "Millions are already pestered by nuisance callers and targeted by scammers. To avoid ending up on a list, never give permission for your data to be shared by third parties and if you are called out of the blue about a financial opportunity, hang up and report it to the regulator."