02Jan

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which regulates data protection, has fined payday lender First Financial £175,000 after it sent millions of illegal texts.The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations forbid companies sending texts to people who have not consented to receive them.

The ICO received complaints from some 4,031 recipients of First Financial’s communications.

A typical text from the lender read: “Hi Mate hows u? I’m still out in town, just got £850 in my account from these guys www.firstpaydayloanuk.co.uk.” Many were sent at unsociable hours, with at least one being sent at 1am. Recipients who replied using the STOP facility sometimes received the same text again, often only minutes later.

Simon Entwisle, the ICO’s director of operations, said of the action: “People are fed up with this menace and they are not willing to be bombarded with nuisance calls and text messages at all times of the day trying to get them to sign up to high interest loans.”

Whilst the ICO fine was for sending the text to people who had not consented to receiving it, the content of the text had also previously attracted the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In June 2013, the ASA banned the text from being sent again after it ruled that it was irresponsible to suggest a payday loan was an appropriate way of paying for a social life; and also that the texts were over-familiar and not identifiable as marketing communications.

First Financial pointed out that the texts were actually sent by marketing company Akklaim Telecoms. However this did not absolve First Financial of responsibility for their content. Akklaim failed to respond to ASA requests to co-operate with its investigation.

Former First Financial director Hamed Shabani was fined £1,180.66 in October 2013 at City of London Magistrates Court. He was prosecuted for failing to notify the ICO that his company was processing financial information. In court, Shabani tried to claim he had no association with the lender, indeed prior to the hearing he had attempted to remove his name from the records of the firm held at Companies House. Regarding this case, Entwisle said: “The fact that this individual tried to distance himself from the unlawful activities of his company shows the kind of individuals we’re dealing with here.”

First Financial only commenced trading in December 2012, so it has attracted a great deal of unwelcome publicity and been subject to three formal enforcement actions in a very short space of time. The company, which has now ceased trading, is entitled to appeal the ICO judgment to the First-Tier Tribunal.