Eight members of Congress have launched a sweeping investigation into data brokers - companies that collect, analyze and sell billions of details each year about consumers' online, offline and mobile activities for marketing and other purposes.

Nine industry players received letters asking for extensive information about their inner workings. The recipients included Fair Isaac Corp., also known as FICO, the Minneapolis-based credit scoring services company; consumer reporting agencies Experian and Equifax, which have separate credit reporting and consumer analytics divisions; marketing services firms Acxiom and Epsilon; and Intelius, a company that offers reverse phone look-up and background check services. The letter gave the companies three weeks to respond.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, along with six other lawmakers, are leading the charge. The legislators want to know how the companies amass, refine, sell and share consumer data.

The goal of the investigation is to determine whether legislators should enact a law regulating the industry, Markey said.

Data brokers often collect details about people's financial, retail and recreational activities to help clients such as banks, credit card issuers, airlines, automakers and retailers retain their best customers and woo new ones.

The letter asked each company to list all of its sources of data; list the specific kinds of consumer information - including ethnic, race or religious data - it collects; describe the data collection methods used, such as tracking of social network or mobile phone activity; explain each product and service the company has marketed to third parties since January 2009, and the type of data used in such products and services; and describe the opt-out, data access, correction and deletion options the company offers consumers.

Unlike consumer reporting agencies, which are required by federal law to show people their own credit reports and allow them to correct errors, information brokers are not required to show consumers information collected about them for marketing purposes.

Markey said he is troubled by data broker programs that categorize individual consumers as desirable or undesirable sales prospects, often without their knowledge and consent, a practice that he said raised privacy concerns. 

Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, the chief privacy officer of Acxiom, said company executives had testified before Congress numerous times to inform legislators about the steps they take to protect consumers and that the company is "happy to provide whatever information we can to further inform interested parties."

Other industry representatives were not immediately available for comment.

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