The accidental landlord: it's illegal to store tenants' personal details

We run our lives by hi-tech devices but it's illegal to use them to store tenants' personal details. The accidental landlord was an unwitting offender.
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Did you know that if you take any personal information from a tenant, even if it's just their mobile number, you probably need to register as a "data controller" otherwise you might be breaking data protection laws?

I must hold up my hands and say that this was news to me — I never even knew there was such a thing as a data controller — until another landlord told me that it's illegal under the 1998 Data Protection Act to request photo ID from tenants. I paled at the thought of all those photocopies of passports I keep in a drawer at home, and immediately contacted the Information Commissioner's Office (ico.org.uk) to find out if this was true.

A nice chap there told me that you can request to see a tenant's ID and any "reasonable amount" of personal information without breaking the law. So that was a relief. It's okay to store paper copies of this information too, as long as you keep them locked away in a filing cabinet, not slung into a random pile on the sideboard.

However, if you receive or store any of this personal information on an electronic device, such as a computer, digital camera or smartphone, you must be registered as a data controller, otherwise you will indeed fall foul of the Data Protection Act.

I told the chap at the ICO that I don't store anything digitally so I was in the clear, but before I had time to do a little celebratory jig around the room he said the minute I call a tenant from my mobile, I will be breaking the law as that will involve keying their number into my phone, which is a "digital device".

"Madam," he said gravely, "I suggest you do need to register."

Any landlord who carries out a credit check on tenants must also add their name to the register, as must those who ask tenants to provide them with the personal information required to protect their deposit.

Strictly speaking, I think every landlord probably ought to be on the register, unless they've handed all of the letting and management of their property over to a third party. It's hard to see how we can avoid having some personal information about tenants on either a computer or smartphone, as most landlords will at least have their tenants' phone numbers.

Obviously, if landlords choose not to register they are not likely to get caught out, I am the living proof of that. But I suppose if one of their tenants were to complain about how their data had been handled, they could face a nasty fine. It's simple to register. You can do it online at ico. org.uk or you can do it over the phone. It only costs £35. Of course, registering is not enough, you also need to familiarise yourself with the Data Protection Act and, crucially, how to collect data and protect it.

All the information you need is on the ICO website. In a nutshell, you must only ask for the sort of personal information you absolutely need and you must tell the tenant why you need it and what you're going to do with it. You must then keep it in a safe place under lock and key or in a password-protected file, not pass it to any third party without informing the tenant, keep it up to date and destroy it when you no longer need it, presumably no later than the end of the tenancy.

However, I suggest you read the guidelines yourself to make sure that, unlike me, you don't accidentally break the law.

Victoria Whitlock lets three properties in south London. To contact Victoria with your ideas and views, tweet @vicwhitlock.

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