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Ulster Bank says it's 'unacceptable' a data breach resulted in its former customers' details being compromised

The breach resulted in names, contact information, and financial details being compromised.

Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty said Ulster Bank has a responsibility to the customers that made the bank a profit in the good times.
Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty said Ulster Bank has a responsibility to the customers that made the bank a profit in the good times.
Image: Oireachtas TV

THE ULSTER BANK head has said it is “unacceptable” that some of its former customers’ personal details were compromised after the bank sold on the loans.

TheJournal.ie reported last month that a debt collection agency that works on behalf of some banks and credit firms operating in Ireland experienced a data breach which resulted in some customers’ personal details being released.

Cabot Financial Ireland Limited, the credit servicing business, was appointed by Promontoria Scarriff Designated Activity Company as the regulated entity responsible for dealing with its mortgage administration. 

Last year, Ulster Bank sold a loan book portfolio, known as Project Scariff, worth €1.6 billion.

It consisted of €900 million of owner-occupier loans across 3,600 accounts and €700 million of buy-to-let (BTL) mortgages across 2,900 accounts.

Phishing scam 

In a letter dated March 2019, and seen by TheJournal.ie, a solicitor’s firm on behalf of Cabot told one customer that due to a suspected email phishing scam attack, some “personal information” had been disclosed.

This included names, contact information, and financial details, such as the amount of the outstanding balance this person owed on their mortgage. 

The letter states: 

Following the identification of this issue, the matter has been referred to the gardaí. We have also reported this matter to the Data Protection Commission.

Appearing for the first time before the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Jane Howard, the Chief Executive of the bank, was asked about whether she was aware of the data breach. 

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty asked Howard if Ulster Bank had contacted Cabot Financial or Promontoria and asked “what are they doing” to their former customers.

cabot 2 Ulster Bank Boss Jane Howard says she was not aware of the data breach of the bank's former customers. Source: Oireachtas TV

The Ulster Bank boss said: 

I wasn’t aware of the data breach, that is something we will pick up as that is clearly unacceptable.

Doherty said Ulster Bank’s former customers, which were sold on in the loan book portfolio sale, were put in that position by the bank. 

Bank’s responsibility

“You put them in this position because your bank sold them… they are fast and loose, you have a responsibility to treat your customers in an appropriate manner,” he said.

A statement to TheJournal.ie from Cabot at the time confirmed the matter was notified to the gardaí and the Data Protection Commissioner. The Central Bank also confirmed that it was aware of the issue.

Howard was also questioned about letters sent to a number of mortgage holders demanding that they pay the full amount of their arrears within 30 days.

Again, these mortgage holders previously banked with Ulster Bank, but were sold off in the Project Scariff sale. 

TheJournal.ie understands that Cabot has written to a number of borrowers who are behind in their payments, demanding that all arrears be cleared within 30 days.

This has been confirmed by the Central Bank of Ireland, which said in a statement: 

The Central Bank is aware that a regulated entity has written to a number of buy-to-let borrowers in arrears.

The letter, seen by this website, sent to mortgage-holders indicates that if they fail to pay up the full amount they owe, Cabot will have “no other option but to appoint a Receiver over the secured property”.

On this issue, Cabot declined to comment when contacted by TheJournal.ie.

Calling in arrears

Doherty said Ulster Bank, like any other financial institution, is within its rights to do this, but said they do not as they have a reputation to uphold and customers to attract. Vulture funds, on the other hand, are only interested in the short-term gain, he said. 

“The idea of any bank saying to clear your arrears in 30 days or we are taking your property is absolutely madness and that is what you have done to nearly 2,200 customers, which have tenants in them and when fixed asset receivers are appointed these tenants are going to be evicted… that is what’s happening here.” 

“You have hung your customers out high and dry, you have fed them to these vultures,” he told Howard, adding:

This is policy of the vulture fund you sold your customers to, and you wash your hands and say it is nothing to do with us anymore. Shame on you. Shame on you for what you have done. We warned you this is what was going to happen, this is what vultures do.
Have you no regard to the people that made your bank profitable during good times and who are finding it hard themselves to make full payments back, and are looking for a bit of time, are looking for a bit of support, but are definitely not looking for this type of attitude…
Can you imagine you writing to your customers tomorrow morning to say to clear your arrears within 30 days or we are going to repossess your homes. People would take their accounts from your bank over night. They would say we are having nothing to do with that. 

In reply, Howard said she was “not aware that practice is actually in place in Ireland” adding, “we will look at it”. 

Another loan sale this year

She indicated that a further loan sale would be carried out this year, in order to reduce their non-performing loan ratio to below 10%.

She said the bank is contacting customers in a bid to get them signed up to sustainable solutions. Of 10,500 Ulster Bank, 2,000 mortgage-holders are in early engagement, 5,000 are deemed to be “engaging and co-operating” and of those, about 4,000 have been offered long-term solutions. About 1,000 Ulster Bank customers are being offered “different” solutions. 

She said about 3,000 have not contacted the bank, which is “worrying”. 

“If people contact and engage, we will be able to help them,” she said. 

Doherty asked Howard if the customers in question at risk of being sold on are paying the maximum amount they are being asked to pay under an arrangement with the bank. 

She said the customers “are paying but an insufficient amount to cover the mortgage”. 

She said there are a whole range of reasons why people fall into arrears, stating that sometimes they “sad situations” such illness. 

Doherty said vulture funds get away with such treatment of people because “they don’t give a damn”. 

“You outsourced your dirty work to the vultures and you are about to do it again. Shame on you,” he said.  

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