Turning the poor into easy prey

David Griffiths (left) runs a company that uses dole figures to help businesses decide where not to send mail shots. But the information is also available to loan sharks, reports Catherine Pepinster
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Credit companies, loan sharks and drinks manufacturers wanting to sell their goods and services to the hard-up can now target the unemployed directly using a database based on government dole statistics.

The Unemployment Warehouse is a new directory of Britain originally compiled to help direct-mail advertisers target those in work with their mail shots, and avoid those on the dole. It works by identifying areas where there are high concentrations of unemployment - on the assumption that these are the least affluent parts of Britain.

But Trac, the company that devised the directory, has now realised its potential for businesses wanting to target those out of work - a move described last week as "distasteful" by people working with the unemployed.

The Unemployment Warehouse gathers together details of neighbourhoods and their unemployment levels using information compiled from government claimant records. It screens areas, postcode by postcode, indicating those that have the highest levels of long-term unemployment, male unemployment and short-term unemployment.

Since it was launched the pounds 1,750 directory has been used by credit firms, charities, and consumer direct mail companies. It was designed to enable advertisers to screen out pockets of unemployment and likely poverty where residents would be unlikely to afford major purchases. Its map (see left) shows that the highest levels of unemployment in Britain are concentrated in northern Ireland, London, northern cities and the far north of Scotland. But it can also provide exact locations of populations of around 2,000 that have the worst levels of unemployment. "Areas with high rates of long-term unemployment tend to be less affluent," said David Griffiths, managing director of Trac. "It would be very helpful to a charity for instance. There is no point asking someone who is out of work for a donation when that person cannot afford Christmas presents for his own children. But other organisations could want to target the unemployed. A loans company, for instance, might want to find people who needed money."

Last week Paul Convery, director of the Unemployment Unit, a research and lobbying organisation, said such a project would be doing the unemployed a great disservice.

"They are aiming at people who are economically vulnerable, and are trading on that very vulnerability. It could be used to help companies reach the poor and then charge them very high rates of interest. It is distasteful and should be prevented if at all possible."

Many market research companies today are able to produce highly sophisticated data overlaying all kinds of information from different sources, such as the census, electoral rolls, and general household surveys. What businesses find particularly helpful is when this data is broken down into postcode areas, enabling them to make specific attempts to target potential customers. Just the data available on an electoral roll is useful to business. It indicates that a person is at least 18 years old; it provides information on a household's composition; first names can help indicate what age a person might be. For a company wanting to sell age-specific holidays, such as those for the over-65s, this can be invaluable.

"Targeting the unemployed can be particularly detrimental to a direct mail response," said Mr Griffiths. "These people are quite poor and their savings and resources are being used up. For a charity, the response rating in an area of very low unemployment can be 12-14 times more than in an area with a high number of people out of work."

The Data Protection Registrar said data obtained fairly from public records and fairly processed was acceptable. However, certain information, although derived from freely available public material, might not be. A list of rich widows living alone at home, for example, had been condemned by the Data Protection Registrar.