As personal debt in Britain approaches the £1.4 trillion mark, business is booming for private investigators charged with tracking down non-payers.
"Why should people get away with not paying?" says Gill Hankey of the Bankruptcy Advisory Service, which counsels bad debtors. "There is an issue of financial morality: some people do borrow either in the full knowledge that they can't repay or that they have no intention of repaying."
Private investigators are employed by banks, building societies and some accountancy firms (themselves employed by lenders) to see whether debtors have hidden wealth.
Legally, they can trawl all sorts of databases to discover the size of a person's debts, track down their quarry, including credit reference agencies. They can also work out how much equity people have in their home by looking at the number of mortgages registered against that property and its current value.
If such basic searches suggest access to substantial assets then the investigators may move to surveillance. And some, it seems, are not afraid to push the boundaries.
The most notorious tactic is "bin spinning" – trawling through someone's rubbish in search of information such as bank accounts, balances, investments and pensions to provide their clients with a complete financial picture. Steve Anderson of First Response Investigations says he knows of investigators who have taken away rubbish sacks in the early hours of the morning, trawled through their contents, copied anything significant and returned it all to the bin. This is all perfectly legal, he adds.
One former private investigator, who recently left the industry and wishes to remain anonymous, recalls using illegal methods "all day every day" for his financial clients.
"Every single detective or investigator breaks the Data Protection Act at least once a week. If they say they don't, they're lying."
He says he would make hundreds of phone calls a day, pretending to work within organisations. Each call would yield a tiny piece of confidential data that built up like a jigsaw puzzle to provide a comprehensive picture of a debtor's finances.
However, Eric Shelmerdine, of trade body the Association of British Investigators, says such tactics could fall foul of the Government's Information Commissioner. "They are getting tough with people who break data protection laws. In some cases they are prosecuting investigators."
Another investigator, Fred Stubbs of Anglo European Private Detectives, says of his industry: "More are breaking the law than not breaking it. The banks will say 'we didn't know', but it's difficult to argue that if they're expecting to receive accounts and balances."
But change is on the way: the Government plans to bring in licensing of private investigators by 2008.Reuse content