The estate agency industry has been ticked off by an official watchdog for the way many of its businesses handle clients' personal data.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has visited a series of estate and letting agents' offices and has now issued a report with a string of observations including:
- staff having little formal training in data protection;
- vendors, landlords and tenants not being always told how their personal information would be used;
- customer data being kept for longer than necessary;
- a lack of awareness about the importance of using technical security controls like encryption;
- paper records containing personal data not being kept securely.
One of the most startling specific findings was that 39 per cent of businesses were keeping electronic information relating to residential lettings indefinitely while the figure for residential sales was 25 per cent.
Although a significant number of respondents reported disposing of paper records relating to sales and lettings, still 10 per cent were keeping this information indefinitely.
The report includes no less than eight pages of advice on how agencies can improve their practices to ensure they stay in line with the Data Protection Act. The ICO has the power to fine organisations that fail to follow the law up to £500,000.
“More than half a million people work in the real estate sector in the UK. That’s a lot of people handling a lot of personal data. It’s an important responsibility to get that right, and our report suggests there’s room for improvement in a lot of sales and lettings agents"" says Leanne Doherty, Good Practice Group Manager at the ICO.
“The series of visits we carried out suggested a limited understanding of data protection. It was particularly concerning that people weren’t being told clearly how their information was being used, and that their data was being kept longer than necessary.
“We’d urge agents to take the time to look at our recommendations and to make changes to improve what they’re doing. The prevention measures we list are far less painful than the cure of a £500,000 fine.”
In 2014/15 the ICO undertook 10 advisory visits at residential estate and letting agents in England, Scotland and Wales and conducted an online survey with 51 respondents in conjunction with the National Association of Estate Agents and Association of Residential Letting Agents.
The ICO accepts that this only constitutes a tiny fraction of the number of residential estate and letting agents in the UK there were a number of common themes and challenges faced in managing information. You can see the report - and its eight pages of recommendations - here.