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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 19:33 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

It's worrying enough if your post gets delivered to the wrong address. But if your e-mails were delivered to someone else, who knows what could happen to your personal information?

Lucy Owen got to the bottom of a media mix-up which caused double trouble!

This is a story about two men, separated by 15 miles, but with so much in common.

Two men called Paul, both married to women called Anne, two men with email accounts with Virgin Media, and one very worrying lapse of security.

Email systems work a bit like mail sorting rooms, with each mail box allocated to a separate recipient. So any mistakes in the system, like an incorrectly labelled mailbox, means the mail can end up in the wrong place.

This story began in August 2008, when Paul McCarthy, who lives in Cardiff, received an unusual email which told him he'd ordered a Leonard Cohen CD from an internet site.

He knew he hadn't ordered that CD, and set about discovering who the recipient of the email should have been.

Paul sent a password request to the online CD shop, which meant he could then enter the password straight into the other man's account.

"By then I'd have full access to his credit card details, personal address and with that information I could go on and do further internet transactions."

Paul McCarthy decided to contact the other person, who he'd found out was called Paul McDonnell and lived in Newport, to tell him what he'd discovered.

He wrote a letter explaining the situation, and the information he'd been able to find out, and sent copies to Virgin Media and Paul McDonnell.

Paul McDonnell was shocked by the letter, "It took me about three or four reads to realise how much of my information had gone to him.

"My details, my password, my bank details were all being passed to him, through the internet, which I found very frightening."

It seems that a glitch in the system had meant that somewhere along the line, the email which had been sent to Paul McDonnell had been duplicated and another copy ended up in Paul McCarthy's inbox.

Both Pauls say they tried to contact Virgin Media to resolve the situation, but they found it difficult to get through to anyone who could help.

Paul McCarthy said, "I just could not get across to the person I was speaking to exactly what was happening. I was told "yes, we'll look into it", and I never heard anything else then since."

The problem didn't get resolved, and in December, Paul McCarthy was still receiving emails meant for Paul McDonnell.

When the two Pauls couldn't get any sense from Virgin Media, they got in touch with X-Ray, and when we contacted the company they finally got to the bottom of the problem.

So how did this problem come about? Well it seems that Paul McCarthy had an old email address with Virgin Media which he hadn't used for several months.

When that account remained dormant, it was allocated to someone else - Paul McDonnell - but Virgin Media hadn't realised there was a forwarding rule attached to the account, so when emails arrived in Paul McDonnell's inbox, they were automatically copied to Paul McCarthy's other email account.

So what's the legal situation surrounding this sort of problem? Lee Fisher is an expert in Electronic Crime at Cardiff-based solicitors Morgan Cole.

He says, "It would seem on the face of it that this is a clear breach of contract and there would be a case there. The problem in this case is that nobody has suffered financial loss so it's unlikely that the case could be brought in this instance.

"There's a lot of personal information being sold over the internet, that's what the Data Protection Act is trying to stop happening, and put in place measures so that internet service providers can keep control of this information.

"But, it's trying to stop it at the front rather than solve problems once they have happened."

Virgin Media says they're taking the incident very seriously and are investigating further to make sure it doesn't happen again. They say it appears to be an isolated case which has now been resolved.

They've apologised to both Pauls, and Paul McDonnell has received £100 in compensation to make up for the inconvenience.

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