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Data protection scofflaws failed to pay £2m in fines from UK watchdog – and 68% of penalties are still outstanding

We're trying, insists beleaguered Information Commissioner's Office

Scofflaws have failed to pay nearly £2m in fines handed out by the UK Information Commissioner's Office over the past 18 months, according to new research.

Between January 2019 and August 2020, the ICO issued a total of £3.2m in monetary penalty notices but just £1.03m has been paid, according to research from SMS API biz The SMS Works.

"The ICO continues to struggle to effectively collect the fines that they issue," sighed The SMS Works co-founder and director Henry Cazalet in a blog post about the regulator's woes. "Companies are still finding ways to wriggle out of their responsibilities." He also asserted that 68 per cent of the total sum issued in fines had not been paid on time.

When measured as a percentage of the fine amount, nuisance-call operators were the least likely to have paid their fines, with The SMS Works finding that just 13 per cent of penalties handed to such firms had been paid.

The figure follows similar research from 2019, where, £7m in fines was outstanding from the previous four year. Since then some have been collected while later penalties remain due.

An ICO spokeswoman conceded that enforcement of fines against nuisance-call firms was proving difficult, telling The Register: "Many nuisance-call companies fined under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations go into liquidation. While in some respects, a firm going into liquidation marks a frustrating end to our investigations, it's worth noting that when nuisance-call companies go out of business, they stop making calls. And that's a successful outcome."

She added: "Since January 2019, nine fines have been paid, seven fines are in the process of being recovered and five are under appeal. Over the same period 16 directors have been disqualified for 94 years and a sole trader also signed a Bankruptcy Restriction Undertaking for six years in connection with ICO fines."

Otherwise, the data obtained by The SMS Works showed that the introduction of GDPR had led to fines declining: there were 89 fines handed out in 2017-18, compared to the post-GDPR period of 2019-20 where only 29 were handed out. For the early part of 2020 the ICO shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the regulator is now operating again.

ICO monetary penalty notices normally state that the fine is payable within one month of hand-down, though companies can appeal against them to the First-Tier Tribunal's General Regulatory Chamber. Nonetheless, some companies take fine evasion to extremes: nuisance caller IT Protect Ltd simply ignored its ICO fine and not only carried on trading until the regulator secured a winding-up order but even funnelled tens of thousands of pounds to its director and his family.

"The ICO's Financial Recovery Unit seeks to recover assets from all companies avoiding fines; this can involve serving statutory demands; obtaining orders for recovery from the courts; and petitioning for the winding up of companies or bankruptcy of individuals," concluded the regulator's spokeswoman. "We actively exercise our rights as a creditor, including nominating insolvency practitioners whose investigations can result in personal claims against directors. We also work closely with the Insolvency Service in these cases, to support action to disqualify the worst offenders from running companies in the future."

That may be so, but for now some offenders are continuing to stick two fingers up at the ICO. ®

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