By Raymond Buchanan
One in 10 of Glasgow's financial call centres has been infiltrated by criminal gangs, police believe.
The gangs are seeking customers' details
The scam works by planting staff inside offices or by forcing current employees to provide sensitive customer details.
The information is then used to steal identities and fraudulently set up accounts or transfer money.
The Customer Contact Association played down the extent of the problem but admitted it was a concern to those in the industry.
Det Ch Insp Derek Robertson of Strathclyde Police told the BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme that there were a large number of call centres in the Glasgow area.
"We have 300-plus, and we know that number is growing," he said.
"I would say approximately 10% have been infiltrated in the past and we are working very hard to reduce that number."
Detectives believe that criminal crews are sent out to recruit volunteers to work in the centres.
Once they agree, they are asked to supply financial information in return for a fee.
Another tactic is to identify pubs where call centre workers visit and intimidate the employees to pass on the details.
Det Ch Insp Robertson said: "There are a number of different ways to do it.
"We know of organised crime groups who are placing people within the call centres so that they can steal customers' data and carry out fraud and money laundering.
"We also know of employees leaving the call centres and being approached and coerced, whether physically, violently or by being encouraged to make some extra money.
"And of course you have the disgruntled employee who may turn their hand to fraud just to benefit themselves."
However, Anne Marie Forsyth of the Customer Contact Association played down the extent to which criminal gangs had managed to manipulate the industry.
The industry employs about 18,000 people in Glasgow alone
She told the programme: "I think what Derek is talking about is the financial services sector, but the contact centre sector is far wider with travel, health, insurance and lots of others.
"Nevertheless it is obviously a concern and it's a concern for all businesses.
"CCA membership has been very active over the last couple of years over sharing and exchanging data in this area. There is lots and lots to learn because business has got to be one step ahead as fraud increases."
Call centres have become an increasingly important source of jobs.
Scottish Enterprise estimates that the industry employs about 18,000 people in Glasgow alone.
Across the UK the number is closer to 800,000. Median wages for those answering the phones are about £14,000.
The union, Unison, said that most call handlers working for established companies would be well trained and well monitored.
Dave Watson, their senior regional officer for Scotland, said that the biggest concern over security centred on out-sourcing companies which had high staff turnovers.
Mr Watson told Newsnight Scotland: "I think the real issue here is there are opportunities for criminal gangs to infiltrate staff where you've got high turnover and employers are desperate to recruit anyone to fulfil a particular contract.
"So what companies need to do is maximise their in-house operations and where they are using out-sourced providers they do that with the same standards that they require with their in-house operations."
Det Ch Insp Robertson said call centre fraud was now a top priority.
His officers regularly monitor local jobs pages and contact new call centres.
He said: "That's the only way to get ahead of the criminal - by pro-actively targeting the organisation before they recruit their member of staff. We are actively working on that."
Ken Macdonald, assistant information commissioner in Scotland, said his office would examine the issue as a matter of urgency.
He added: "The information commissioner is calling for two year prison sentences for people involved in this illegal trade."
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