Lord Ashcroft: I, like the Duchess of Cambridge, was a victim of bank account hackers
It was with regret that I read the Duchess of Cambridge has allegedly been the victim of a private investigator who hacked into details of her bank account. However, although I was sorry to learn of the apparent events from 2005, I was certainly not surprised.
This is because more than a decade ago, when I was at the centre of interest from newspapers because of my role as the Treasurer of the Conservative Party, I, too, had confidential banking details accessed by a private investigator (although this job description is too flattering and I prefer to describe him simply as a criminal).
In my case, the private investigator/criminal – who was linked to a national newspaper – was clearly seeking to prove that I had been making vast donations to the Conservative Party, far larger than had been reported. The imposter obtained the information by “blagging” his way into the Conservative Party’s banking records held by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
When these deceitful tactics simply proved that rumours that I had been donating up to £360,000 a month to the Conservative Party were false, this was not, unfortunately, the end of the dirty deeds perpetrated against me.
Some time later, I discovered that a private detective (I suspect a different one on this occasion) had successfully – and again illegally – obtained details of my private tax affairs from the Inland Revenue (now HMRC). These were details that eventually found their way into the pages of a national newspaper: The Sunday Times.
So in 2000 (in the aftermath of my libel battle against The Times) and during the immediate years afterwards, I decided to carry out my own inquiries – involving a vast amount of time, money and effort – into those who had been targeting me. I eventually identified the private detective who had accessed details of my bank account.
Furthermore, as a result of pressure from me, the Inland Revenue carried out internal inquiries and discovered that its office in Bootle, Merseyside, had received a phone call (it later emerged there were several phone calls) from someone purporting to be me. The caller was able to quote my unique taxpayer reference number and he also had accurate details of a small tax repayment I had received.
In March 2002, Sir Nick Montagu, then the chairman of the Inland Revenue, wrote personally to me saying: “It is now clear that the caller was masquerading as you, and I am extremely sorry that we failed to spot as bogus someone who was able to give a reference number which matched your name and who displayed some familiarity with your tax affairs.”
Sir Nick referred the matter to the Information Commissioner and, a year later, I learnt from an investigating officer acting for the Commissioner that, in fact, five calls had been received by the Inland Revenue, between 9 and 14 February 2001, from someone who purported to be me. One of those who the “blagger” telephoned was an experienced Inland Revenue operator who said she often had a “sixth sense” about bogus calls, but she had not been suspicious of my impersonator.
Despite my extensive inquiries, I was never certain of the identity of this “blagger”/criminal. However, in 2005 – just as the unfortunate Kate Middleton was apparently having her bank details hacked – I wrote and published a book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, which revealed a range of unscrupulous tactics employed by some newspapers and their well-paid private investigators against unsuspecting, law-abiding individuals.
I disclosed that it was routine for some newspapers to ask private detectives to obtain illegal information – so that they could deny acting illegally themselves (conveniently ignoring that it is, in fact, illegal under the Data Protection Act to procure such an unauthorised disclosure of confidential information, unless it can be proved to be in the public interest). I wrote: “The man in the street would be appalled if he knew how often it goes on and how easy it is to obtain information on an individual, famous or unknown.”
I am glad to say, however, that the jailing of a prominent journalist (Clive Goodman of the News of the World in 2007) and the growing cost of using private investigators have since persuaded some unscrupulous newspapers to clean up their acts.
At one point, “pulling” (in journalistic parlance) an individual’s credit card details, medical records or ex-directory telephone number was seen as high jinks in many news rooms, whereas now the very real prospect of significant jail sentences for such actions has, shall we say, concentrated the mind.
I hope that the Duchess of Cambridge eventually finds out who was apparently responsible for hacking her bank account and, if such a person exists, the identity of the individual who asked the private investigator to carry out his deceitful actions in the first place.
However, I know from experience that such the world of “dodgy” private investigators and unscrupulous journalists is a murky one. I suspect in order to get to the bottom of such skulduggery our future Queen, her advisors and the police will have to negotiate a long and difficult road ahead.