Federal and state authorities on Tuesday said they are investigating whether numerous banks and credit card companies are engaged in illegal telemarketing arrangements.
Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. sparked a controversy Monday by accusing banks of "seamy" and possibly fraudulent practices that invade consumer privacy.
He singled out what he said are a rising number of banks that sell customer data to telemarketing firms for commissions and then let these firms debit accounts of customers without their permission.
Though Mr. Hawke called the practice "widespread," agency officials refused to give details on how many banks are suspected of doing this and where.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency's primary source of information has been state attorneys general, who would document their accusations only after the agency agreed to keep the information confidential.
"We are kind of handicapped here, at least right at the moment, ... because we've had lots of material provided to us that we can't talk much about," said Julie L. Williams, the agency's chief counsel. But "we have copies of material that underlie the practices we are expressing concern about."
Yet the lack of details has led skeptics to question whether the OCC is exaggerating the claims for some other purpose.
House Banking Committee staff members said their attempts to pry more details from the Comptroller's Office failed.
"When we asked, the initial staff response was that they have anecdotal information but nothing beyond that," a House Banking spokesman said. "We have asked the OCC to make available any supporting material they have."
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, R-Tex., will explore the issue in a series of hearings on consumer privacy that he plans to kick off today, his spokeswoman said.
OCC officials said they have spoken directly with four attorneys general who are investigating the controversial practices and have received reports that authorities in other states are conducting similar investigations.
"It is not anecdotal," an OCC lawyer said in an interview Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. The agency has obtained "stacks of documents" that are "a solid indication that this information is being sold."
These activities could violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act if banks are sharing information from credit reports or other legally protected data with outside companies for marketing purposes. Also, banks and telemarketing firms could be breaking state or federal deceptive practices laws by debiting customer accounts without permission.
"It really depends on what information they are conveying," the OCC lawyer said. Another question is "whether these customers really understand what's happening or are being misled."
State officials backed the OCC's statements but said they are similarly circumspect because of the need to protect pending investigations, the difficulty of categorizing consumer complaints, and the rapid rise in these complaints.
"We have two active investigations going on right now and potentially more," said Paula Selis, a senior counsel in the consumer protection division of Washington State's attorney general's office. "In each of those, there is a substantial number of complaints."
Just how many other states are investigating the issue is unclear, but California, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are among those said to be doing so.
"It's just something we really started seeing in the last five or six months," said Joseph K. Goldberg, senior deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania. "I would bet you at least half the states have seen it," he said, on the basis of a meeting in April of the National Association of Attorneys General.