Black market in personal data is booming

Film shows how easy it is to obtain information

An undercover investigation into the illicit trade in personal information in Britain has revealed how easy it is for private investigators to obtain personal data illegally.

A Channel 4 documentary to be aired tomorrow reveals that employees from two of Britain's biggest companies unknowingly supplied confidential information to a private investigations firm.

It is estimated that as many as 10,000 unregulated private investigators (PIs) use a network of contacts up and down the country at banks, phone companies, police stations and government agencies to gain access to personal information.

The Dispatches documentary "Watching the Detectives" reveals that a private investigations firm, Xfor, managed to acquire information from staff at Lloyd's TSB and O2. Posing as a security consultant, the film-maker Chris Atkins approached Xfor for information on a potential client, Tom Puukko. Mr Puukko, 35, an advertising executive from London, posed as a "target" for the film.

Within two weeks, Xfor investigators provided a copy of Mr Puukko's itemised mobile phone bill for £750. For a further £750 Xfor gave a typed copy of Mr Puukko's Lloyds TSB current account statement.

Cameron Addicott, a former investigator at the Serious Organised Crime Agency, said the most likely source of the statement was an employee at the bank's call centre who gave out the information over the phone.

At a meeting filmed by Mr Atkins, Nick Cryne, an Xfor investigator, offered to provide a breakdown, number by number, of the people to whom Mr Puukko had been talking.

"What we have at the moment is untamed predatory individuals masquerading as professional investigators," said Tony Imossi, the president of the Association of British Investigators, "who are doing no more than information brokering."

O2 said: "We take the subject of customer data security very seriously. We can confirm that a bill was sent to a caller who passed all our security checks, including providing us with the password for the account."

A statement from Lloyds TSB said: "We have investigated this case and found human error to be the root cause. The individual involved has now been retrained."

Xfor's CEO, Gary Lincoln-Hope, said that it is company policy for staff to abide by the Data Protection Act. But he would not give details on how his team acquired the data as it was "corporately highly sensitive and exposing such would seriously jeopardise our position in the marketplace".

'Watching the Detectives' is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm