updated 6/21/2006 7:11:42 PM ET 2006-06-21T23:11:42

Lawmakers promised on Wednesday to end shady practices by private data brokers who gather Americans’ telephone records without subpoenas or warrants on behalf of banks, bail bondsmen and, sometimes, federal and local police.

Eleven people identified as data brokers refused to testify Wednesday at a congressional hearing. They invoked their Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate themselves.

These brokers, many of whom market aggressively on the Internet, have tricked telephone carriers into disclosing private customer information and broken into online accounts.

“This is a crime and we need to put a stop to it,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Practices 'seem to be illegal'
The committee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said broker practices “seem to be illegal.” He promised to press for a broader vote in Congress on legislation the committee has approved to outlaw efforts to impersonate customers to trick companies into revealing personal records.

“Unfortunately, brokers routinely lie to get their hands on this information,” Barton said.

Sensitive to public unease over disclosures of private phone records in the murky industry, lawmakers started two rounds of oversight hearings Wednesday to investigate which laws, if any, might have been violated.

One of the 11 people called to testify, Michele Yontef, smiled slightly when Whitfield read excerpts from an e-mail she sent to a colleague in July 2005 in which she complained: “I was shot down four times...I keep getting northwestern call center and they just must have had an operator meeting about pretext as every operator is cued in.”

Lawyers for the data brokers said the companies are innocent, that brokers protected themselves by requiring their contract workers to sign statements promising to obey the law.

“While it may be distasteful for many, there was no bright-line law that prohibited this,” said James Bearden, a Texas lawyer. He represents four such data brokers and was expected to attend this week’s congressional inquiry.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., called the brokers’ business “atrocious,” and noted that brokers have acknowledged providing information free to law enforcement agencies around the country.

Documents turned over under subpoena to congressional investigators provide a glimpse into how the industry operates. They show some of the country’s most famous corporate names — from automakers to insurers to banks — purchasing information on private citizens, often to track down delinquent customers.

Two such companies, Wells Fargo & Co. and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., said they have since ended relationships with data broker companies.

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