An alarming 80 - 85% of businesses appear unaware of the implications of the latest Data Protection Act. Are you one of them?

Old files. We all have them. Then when you want to clear some space, out come the black bin bags. However, taking this route could land you with a hefty fine and - in extreme circumstances - even a prison sentence. Far-fetched? Think just what might be in those files.

Stuart Riccalton, Chairman of the UK Security Shredding Association, is called on every day by businesses anxious to know whether files can be disposed of normally - or need to go by a more secure route. "The 1998 Data Protection Act (DPA) is long and complex - but not knowing its contents is no excuse. Any personal or potentially sensitive piece of information about an employee, supplier, customer or even job applicant could be deemed to fall within the DPA.

"It has to be held for a good reason, stored securely, not used for any purpose for which it was not intended, kept up to date and - this is the crunch - disposed of securely as soon as it is no longer required."

We've all seen the newspapers gleefully report on sensitive health or personnel records being found on a tip. Carelessness like this can lead to severe problems for people, and the DPA is there to protect them.

However, most businesses have little idea of the scope of the Act - or the sanctions for breaching it. "Most people assume it is something to do with computer files," says Stuart. "But the Act includes paper copies as well."

So now might be a good time to check what you DO have on file. Just having it there may be putting you in breach of the DPA. The next task is to speak to an organisation with the security systems, equipment and experience to ensure that any potentially sensitive material is dealt with properly; those belonging to a recognised association, like UKSSA, will have been vetted to ensure they meet the standards they promise.

"The contractor becomes responsible for its secure disposal," says Stuart. "You may also wish to create an audit policy between yourself and your contractor, which becomes part of your QA procedure."

But what does it cost? "As you might expect," says Stuart, "somewhat more than the price of a few bin bags. However, the cost of NOT doing a job properly could be a lot, lot more!"