A letting agent has been found guilty under section 55 of the Data Protection Act and the Criminal Attempts Act.
The agent was fined £200 and ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge and £728.60 prosecution costs by Highbury Magistrates Court.
The offence was uncovered in June 2011 when the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) received a call from the agent who was fraudulently trying to access the account of a tenant on benefits. The DWP investigated before reporting the matter to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).
The agent had no authority to access the tenants’ information held by the DWP and it was only when the agent could not recall the tenant’s middle name that the DWP became suspicion.
Unlawfully obtaining or accessing personal data is a criminal offence under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The offence is punishable by way of a financial penalty of up to £5,000 in a Magistrates Court or an unlimited fine in a Crown Court.
So what should you do if you want to check the details given to you by a tenant or potential tenant?
A signed letter of authority should be obtained from the tenant and then the DWP contacted to obtain the information you need. The DWP will want sight of the letter of authority which could be faxed before any telephone call.
Whilst the fine was small the agent and the company are no doubt having to deal with the publicity that this case has attracted. It simply is not worth it in such a competitive market and guidance can be sought on the ICO website.
Finally the Data Protection Act is likely to be replaced by the new General Date Protection Regulation which is likely to be introduced next year. Agents should take this seriously and should consider implementing changes if they are aware that staff is not adhering to the law as ‘strictly as they should’.