The UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency has neglected to take action against the companies accused of paying for fraudulent information on more than 50 members of the public, despite having been aware of the firms’ identities for the past four years, it has emerged.
The revelation came as the parliamentary committee looking into the so-called “blue-chip hacking” affair – in which companies such as law firms and insurers are alleged to have commissioned rogue private investigators to find sensitive data on individuals – attempted to estimate the scale of the scandal.
Soca has compiled a list of 102 companies and individuals suspected of having commissioned four private detectives, who were convicted of illegally “blagging” information last year under Operation Milipede.
In a letter published on Wednesday by the committee, Trevor Pearce, Soca’s director-general, confirmed that although the four rogue investigators have been prosecuted, the Agency has not arrested or charged any of the companies which paid the sleuths for their work.
Mr Pearce’s letter also states that 51 people had their private data “fraudulently accessed” as a result of commissions by the 102 companies and individuals. Another 49 people were targeted by the sleuths, but Soca could not find evidence of fraud in these cases.
“The scale of the problem is now frighteningly apparent,” said Keith Vaz, chair of the Commons’ Home Affairs Committee.
“It seems that for every private investigator in the country, there could be 25 potential victims.”
According to the Association of Private Investigators, the number of private investigators working in the UK ranges between 2,000 and 4,000, though the exact number is unknown, as the industry is not yet regulated.
“The Government’s timetable for legislation next year is far too long and may be lost in the wash up before the next election,” Mr Vaz added.
Urging immediate action on this issue, Mr Vaz said he was “very disappointed” that despite having the information since 2009, Soca had not looked at the “crucial issue” of whether clients were aware that the private investigators they hired were breaking the law
“It is clear that behind every client’s request of a private investigator lies a victim of potential illegality,” the Labour MP added. “It is … imperative that those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice.”
Meanwhile Tony Imossi, the president of the Association of British Investigators, cautioned that in the furore over “blagging”, not all investigators should be tarred with the same brush.
“That would be to judge every investigator against by the standards of the four convicted individuals,” he said. “It’s a perverse distortion to try and assimilate the information that’s landed before the committee to what is the norm to the standard in the investigation sector across the board.”
As details of the blue-chip hacking have come to light, Lord Justice Leveson has come under fire for not pursuing evidence presented to his inquiry into phone hacking by media organisations. A confidential Soca report given to the judge documented that insurance companies, debt-tracers, and people involved in divorce cases had also commissioned rogue investigators.
Mark Lewis, the lawyer who had acted for the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered teenager whose phone had been hacked on behalf of News of the World, was himself put under surveillance by private investigators.
“There should be consistency,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter who investigators were working for, whether it’s newspapers or commercial organisations. It’s the same law, and therefore the same breach of the law.”