Spam text message pair are fined £440,000
Two men who sent millions of spam text messages have been fined £440,000 as the authorities step up the fight against the trade.
Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish were part of a growing industry that sends texts to promote compensation claims for personal injury or payment protection mis-selling.
The information commissioner is trying to stop spammers and blaggers.
It says they are fuelling the trade by selling information without permission.
It is the first time the watchdog has used its powers to levy fines for this sort of case.
'Distressed and annoyed'
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said: "The public have told us that they are distressed and annoyed by the constant bombardment of illegal texts and calls and we are currently cracking down on the companies responsible, using the full force of the law.
"The two individuals we have served penalties on today made a substantial profit from the sale of personal information. They knew they were breaking the law and the trail of evidence uncovered by my office highlights the scale of their operations."
The case centres on Tetrus Telecoms, based in Greater Manchester, which offered to send out more than 800,000 texts a day on behalf of its clients, who are claims management companies looking for compensation cases to pass on to lawyers.
The messages, or variations of them, will be familiar to mobile phone users across Britain: "CLAIM TODAY, you may be entitled to £3500 for the accident you had. To CLAIM free reply CLAIM to this message. To opt out text STOP".
The information commissioner's office (ICO) says handwritten notes found in one of the company's offices suggested Tetrus had been using 70 mobile phone sim cards a day.
These would be inserted in a card reader connected to a computer, and SMS messages would be sent until each card's text message limit had been reached.
The company's directors, Mr Niebel and Mr McNeish, have been fined £440,000 between them for breaching the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
These require that marketing companies sending SMS messages must identify themselves and offer a way for recipients to opt out.
Records seized by the ICO suggest the company was making sales of more than £7,000 a day and its directors were earning tens of thousands of pounds.
'We had consent'
Mr Niebel told the BBC the company had permission to send out texts because the users on the lists they were using had given their "consent" to be contacted.
In a statement, Mr Niebel said he had not been provided with evidence from the ICO to support the allegations against him and they had not been examined in a court. He said intended to challenge the fine.
He also said he was a minor shareholder in the company and he said the majority was owned by Mr McNeish, who now lives in Thailand.
Mr Niebel claimed the ICO was concentrating on him because it had no legal jurisdiction over his partner.
The case has thrown a rare spotlight on the trade in potential clients for compensation claims, and the private data that enables them to be contacted.
Spammers sometimes send out messages to random numbers in the hope that they link to active mobile phones. They also buy black market lists of numbers on the internet.
For those receiving unwanted messages, replying can lead to the number being marked as active, making it more valuable to so-called 'list brokers'. Each proven number can be worth £5.
The ICO recommends the messages are deleted.
Mr Graham said: "Our message to the public is, if you don't know who sent you a text message then do not respond, otherwise your details may be used to generate profits for these unscrupulous individuals."
However should a phone-user respond positively to a message offering compensation for a road accident or mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) they will be passed to a claims management company which can then sell their case to a solicitor for a commission of around £500.
Critics says the process drives a "compensation culture" which the insurance industry says is pushing up premiums for everyone.
The ICO is also actively investigating cases of so called 'blagging' where the private details of potential insurance claimants are illegally collected and passed to claim management companies.
The details of those involved road accidents are often passed on by insurance companies, courtesy car providers, or even medical staff.
The ICO is considering taking action against three other companies believed to be acting in breach of the privacy and electronic communications regulations.
Update September 2015: In October 2013, the General Regulatory Chamber overturned the fine imposed on Christopher Niebel, a decision later upheld on appeal. In light of that, the Information Commissioner's Office decided not to pursue the case against Gary McNeish.