Blaggers who obtain and sell private information such as medical records, bank statements and ex-directory telephone numbers should be jailed for up to two years, the Information Commissioner said.
Christopher Graham told The Independent: "This modern scourge is only going to be dealt with if the courts recognise it is a real crime." He said there was an urgent need to introduce tough punishments for blaggers, who currently receive average fines of £300 per offence for their "hugely profitable" practice.
Mr Graham said newspapers were a relatively small part of the market for private records, compared with other customers including debt collectors and claim management companies. "A lot of people involved in this business do not see it as a crime. They see it as akin to pinching the office stationery," he said. "If a custodial penalty was there, it would make life much easier."
Private detectives are alleged to bribe staff at banks, hospitals and phone companies to obtain confidential information.