Hacking scandal: Police knew of illegal record checks for financiers but took no action

Soca had proof after seizing hard drives from corrupt private investigators

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The Independent Online

The Serious Organised Crime Agency knew that an international currency broker commissioned corrupt private detectives to obtain highly sensitive international criminal records checks on business associates – but took no action against the firm of brokers.

Investigators from Soca seized computer hard drives from criminal private investigators that showed the blue-chip company paid them £14,000 to gather a wealth of private information on two family members with whom it was in dispute, including CRB checks and an Interpol trace. Emails recovered by security officials also showed the private detectives obtained confidential bank accounts, credit card statements, passport numbers and mobile phone PINs on behalf of the broker.

However Soca decided not to take any action against the company, which claims to represent tens of thousands of private individuals and 5,000 corporate clients across 100 different industry sectors. Soca has stated there was no evidence that the broker client of the investigators knew that their activities would be against the law.

The news will fuel claims that Soca and the police have failed to pursue other industries for unlawfully obtaining sensitive information, while relentlessly targeting newspapers.

Fleet Street, which has suffered massive commercial and reputational damage since the phone-hacking scandal erupted in 2011, has been in uproar since The Independent revealed that Soca knew six years ago that law firms, telecoms giants and insurance companies routinely employed criminal private investigators to hack, blag and steal sensitive information.

The disclosure has forced Sir Ian Andrews, the chair of Soca, and the agency’s director-general Trevor Pearce, to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee later today. Its chairman Keith Vaz, the Labour MP, said: “These are very serious issues. The Committee wants a complete list of those companies who have authorised these private investigators unlawfully to obtain this information.

“To believe that the matter is at an end because the private investigator is convicted is plain wrong and we would like to know from Soca what further steps they will take to stem the demand.”

Between 2008 and 2009, Soca seized several hard drives from two private investigators who cannot be named for legal reasons.

In emails uncovered by the agency – dubbed “Britain’s FBI” – it emerged that the investigators had been hired by the broker, which claims to have exchanged more than £100bn of currency. One of the offenders emailed his associate: “Please find attached the UK side of the inquiry. Can you get [another PI] to turn over the bank account and credit card, and any associated bank or credit cards for the [family members].

He added: “I have also sent a Spanish bank account if [another PI] could try that as well”, and finished by asking for “CRB/Interpol on both [family members].”

A security source with knowledge of the Soca probe told The Independent that criminal records checks can only be obtained from corrupt serving law enforcement officials and are clearly unlawful.

The emails obtained by Soca revealed a treasure trove of criminal activity conducted by the private investigators, one of whom was a retired Scotland Yard detective, carried out on behalf of the client.

At the end of their unlawful inquiries, the private detectives invoiced the currency broker for preliminary investigations in Spain and the UK, including Interpol criminal background searches on the family members.

One of the key private investigators identified by Soca has privately admitted that 80 per cent of his client list were blue-chip firms, while only 20 per cent came from the media.

A Soca spokesperson said: “We do not comment on or confirm operational detail.”