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Regulators vow action after man, 87, 'lost £35,000 due to charity data selling'

Published 01/09/2015

A former army colonel lost almost £35,000, it was reported
A former army colonel lost almost £35,000, it was reported

Regulators have vowed to take action after it emerged an elderly man was conned out of thousands of pounds as a result of charities buying and selling his personal details.

Widower Samuel Rae's details were passed on hundreds of times after he forgot to tick a box on a lifestyle survey 21 years ago.

The 87-year-old former army colonel's data has since been given to charities, and even some companies associated with scams with the result that he has lost almost £35,000, an investigation by the Daily Mail found.

Mr Rae's son Chris said his father, who lives in St Buryan in Cornwall and suffers from dementia, had been treated in an "absolutely disgraceful" way by charities.

It comes just months after the Government commissioned a review into the way charities carry out their fundraising following the suicide of Britain's longest-serving poppy seller Olive Cooke.

Mrs Cooke, 92, from Fishponds in Bristol, had told how she was receiving up to 267 letters in a month and regular phone calls from charities asking her for donations.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told BBC Radio 4's Today programme his office would be investigating and said : "I f the law has been broken, we will take action.

"Whether or not Samuel Rae ticked the box in 1994 and is still being plagued with unwanted mail and unwanted approaches is beside the point. The Data Protection Act is very clear - the very first principle is that your data is only processed fairly and lawfully. What's described in the papers this morning doesn't look like that."

A failure to tick a box "isn't consent and it doesn't give you the right to trade in people's personal information years after the event", he said.

Mr Graham said: "If there's any connection between the good work that charities do and the scam merchants, that's very concerning and we've got to get to the bottom of how this information was passed on".

But he warned: "There's a danger here of blackening a whole sector. Charities seem to be becoming the new dirty word, and that clearly isn't fair. We've got to look at the specifics of the case and work out exactly what has happened and if the law has been broken, we will act."

The Information Commissioner's Office's (ICO) head of enforcement, Steve Eckersley, added: "We have been presented with some clearly concerning findings about data sharing and sale in the charity sector, and we will be investigating them further.

"The law applies to charities as it does to any other company. We already have an ongoing investigation into marketing practices in the charity sector, and where we find companies have broken the law we will take action."

The investigation found that at least 15 charities sold or passed on Mr Rae's details up to 200 times between them - including to companies responsible for defrauding the elderly.

The RSPCA was among charities which contacted him for up to five years after he asked them to stop, some asking him for money up to 38 times a year, while the PDSA passed his data on 10 times, including to the Prize Winners' Club, which the Mail said has carried out scams against elderly people.

The Cancer Recovery Foundation and t he Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation also passed his details on to Best Of and Biotonic, two foreign companies which have faced legal action for tricking older people out of money and together were able to scam Mr Rae out of almost £4,500.

Since filling out the survey in 1994, he has also been contacted by fundraising appeals at least 731 times.

The RSPCA said it "strongly disputes any claims that we deliberately target the elderly or vulnerable, or deceive our supporters in any way" and that it gives supporters the option to opt out of further communication.

A spokeswoman said: "We have listened to broad public concerns raised in recent months and have worked closely with the Fundraising Standards Board and the Institute of Fundraising on a review of current practice."

The Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), which regulates fundraising practice and monitors complaints about how charities raise money, said it was "deeply concerning" that Mr Rae had had his contact details exploited in such a manner and promised to fully investigate the allegations.

Chief executive Alistair McLean said: " It is critical that the public clearly understands how their contact details may be used, and that data sharing practices within the sector are thoroughly reviewed.

"Following complaints raised with us during May and June of this year, the FRSB called for changes to be made to charity fundraising standards that would give the public more control over the way they are approached by charities.

"The Institute of Fundraising has established task groups, which are currently reviewing these issues, ahead of making the necessary changes to the Code of Fundraising Practice.

"These changes must include sufficient safeguards to ensure that the public is protected and to enable trust and confidence in charitable giving to be restored."

Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at regulator the Charity Commission, added: "We hope the review of self regulation of fundraising due to report shortly will recommend action to improve the regulation of fundraising and protect public trust and confidence in charities."

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