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cheque it out Over £2m in bank payments cheques flutter down Newry street in huge data breach

The cheques were made out to businesses and private individuals in in the city

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Declan O’Callaghan who found cheques that had been lodged at the AIB Branch in Newry
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Declan O’Callaghan who found cheques that had been lodged at the AIB Branch in Newry Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Declan O’Callaghan who found cheques that had been lodged at the AIB Branch in Newry Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The streets of Newry were paved with money last month as £2 million rained down on the city centre.

Pedestrians couldn't believe their eyes as hundreds of cheques fluttered down the street on the breeze.

Cheques made out to businesses and private individuals littered The Mall in the centre of Newry.

Pedestrian Declan O'Callaghan couldn't believe his eyes.

"It was unbelievable, I was walking through the town when all these bits of paper came floating down the street," he said.

"There was hundreds of them, I caught a few and realised they were cheques."

So he set about gathering them up - by the time he had finished he had a bundle of more than 400 separate cheques with a face value totalling in excess of £2 million.

"The amounts ranged from £50 to £125,000 - people's names, company names, it was all there lying on the street."

He said people's personal data had been compromised.

The Sunday World has spoken to an expert in data protection who has told us the incident represents a "massive breach of personal data".

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Some of the cheques recovered

Some of the cheques recovered

Some of the cheques recovered

"This is on a scale I haven't seen before, it's amazing the amount of information you can glean from a cheque and there is the potential for fraud and also individuals being left open to blackmail. It's very serious."

We also contacted the Information Commissioner. There has been no formal response but they said they were unaware of the incident but should have been informed within 72 hours of it happening.

Banks have a duty of care to customers to protect their private information.

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A data protection expert said customers and clients would be well within their rights to consider legal action if they suspect personal information had been compromised.

"In effect there is a contract between the customer/client and the bank, we entrust them with our information.

"I can't say who was responsible for these cheques ending up on the street, but it's down to someone."

Companies found to have been in breach of data protection are liable to huge fines and according to our expert this incident is "at the top of the scale".

"On the face of it we have hundreds of people whose personal information has been compromised."

The Sunday World is now in possession of the cheques and they include everything from commercial transactions to personal business.

There were a number of cheques which were clearly written to cover membership of the Masonic Order, a largely secret organisation that protects the identity of their members.

Payments to and from solicitors' offices are also included. We have seen cheques made payable to a hospice, Newry, Mourne and Down Council, the Education Board and a host of other public bodies.

Included in the bundle are cheques made payable to the courts, as well as many personal payments.

There is no monetary value as the cheques have been processed but it represents a serious breach of personal data.

The cheques are drawn from accounts from every High Street bank - Danske, Ulster, Allied Irish, Santander.

Declan O'Callaghan said he believed the cheques were blown down the street from the rear of a branch of the Allied Irish.

"I took the cheques into them and said they had compromised people's private information," he said.

"They said the cheques had nothing to do with them."

When contacted by the Sunday World, a spokesperson for the bank confirmed an incident had taken place close to their branch.

"AIB is aware of an incident in the vicinity of its Newry branch relating to materials that were in a security van," he said.

"We have investigated with the security company in question who have assured us that no AIB material or customer data was compromised."

The Sunday World has contacted the security company but at the time of going to print there has been no response.

Once processed, cheques are routinely collected by a security company and shredded to protect the payee from potential fraud and to protect personal information.

Declan O'Callaghan said many questions remained.

"I wouldn't be too happy to think that cheques carrying my name are floating about the town.

"There's a lot of private information there I saw mobility payments, there are cheques that obviously relate to the settlement of a will, there's legal disputes, planning issues, you name it."

The Sunday World tried to contact a number of High Street banks. A spokesperson for the Bank of Ireland said they were unaware of the incident but would initiate an investigation.

richard.sullivan@sundayworld.com

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