Councils expose public to identity theft

Three Norfolk councils are exposing thousands of people to the risk of identity theft by putting their personal details online, it was revealed last night.

Three Norfolk councils are exposing thousands of people to the risk of identity theft by putting their personal details online, it was revealed last night.

Broadland, South Norfolk and Norwich City councils electronically copy documents for planning applications - then put them online unaltered, complete with private phone numbers, names and addresses and signatures.

Since being confronted by the EDP, the city council has abandoned the practice, while the other two have promised to review their procedures - but are continuing to do it in the meantime.

The practice - branded "wholly unnecessary" by a government watchdog - flies in the face of strict guidelines issued last year to protect the public from opportunistic criminals who steal personal details and use them to drain bank accounts.

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And it comes as ID theft is in the news, with millions of families on alert after the government lost two discs containing their bank details and other private information.

Last night, leading ID theft expert Neil Munroe, from Eqifax, warned the personal details on offer could easily give criminals the inroad they needed to start committing ID fraud.

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He said: "There is a possibility you could go quite far and get a complete ID starting from this. These details would very much be a start and it is surprising that some councils are still publishing them.

"The question is where would you go from here? You could start ringing them up and get the information, or if you had an e-mail address you could always e-mail the person, pretending to be an official body, and ask for details of their bank.

"Despite repeated warnings, there are still people who give this information out."

In July 2006, the information commissioner and the government's electronic information project, Planning Applications and Regulations Online (Parsol), published strict guidelines on the issue.

They say "extreme care should be taken to avoid any unnecessary disclosure of telephone numbers,

e-mail addresses and signatures".

Councils failing to follow the guidance run the risk of legal action - a danger heightened by a successful complaint by a member of the public against a council in Scotland.

Local authorities have an obligation to publish certain information, such as details of planning applications or applications for various trading licences.

But Helen Ketton, from the information commissioner's office, warned it was important councils did not publish other personal information unnecessarily as it may breach the data protection act.

She said: "Although authorities are required by law to publish information regarding planning applications, including some personal information of the individual making the application, it is our view that publishing additional information such as mobile phone numbers and signatures is wholly unnecessary and may leave residents vulnerable to identity theft."

Broadland, South Norfolk and, until now, Norwich scan and publish online planning application forms with applicants' telephone numbers and signatures.

North Norfolk District Council and West Norfolk Council also scan and publish the forms but blank out the crucial information.

Yarmouth Borough Council and Breckland Council do not publish the forms at all.

North Norfolk said it had been following the practice since before the Parsol guidelines, while West Norfolk began the practice when the guidelines were published.

A spokesman for the city council, which has stopped public access to the planning section of its website while investigating the issue, said: "We thank you for bringing this to our attention and we will now be investigating immediately to ensure we are meeting our obligations under the data protection act."

A spokesman for Broadland said: "Planning is a publicly accountable process and information about planning applications has always been made publicly available with anyone able to inspect planning applications held by a council.

"Technology has meant that the documents are more widely available for public inspection. We are currently reviewing our procedures and will be introducing a new form by April which leaves off personal contact details."

Derek Blake, South Norfolk cabinet member for planning, housing and the built environment, said: "We are aware of the issues and are reviewing government advice. We understand more advice, including possible redesign of planning application forms, will be announced by the government in the spring.

"As far as South Norfolk Council is concerned, we have placed advice on our own website that any written communication is subject to scanning for immediate presentation on the site, and respondents should be aware of that.

"In addition, if members of the public do not wish to have any personal details made public, they are welcome to pass their comments on planning applications through their local councillor."

In October, the information commissioner's office upheld a complaint by a member of the public against Perth and Kinross Council, which had published his signature on the internet.

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