CHARLOTTE, N.C. - You may never have heard of data brokers, but chances are they know a lot about you.
Data collection companies gather and sell personal details about people.
Mark Grambling does everything he can to keep his personal information private.
“Never in the phone book,” he said. "Always been very conscious when we’re filling things out.”
The retired sheriff's deputy and father of two spent 21 years putting criminals behind bars in California.
Despite his new life in Hickory, he still does not want his contact information out in the open.
“If somebody has a grudge or, you know, some ax to grind or something like that, I don’t want my family dragged into it,” Grambling said.
Channel 9 discovered Grambling’s name, address and phone number on a list that Eyewitness News bought online with no questions asked.
The list contains the names and contact information of more than 2,000 current and retired law-enforcement officers across the country, including many in the Carolinas.
“I don't know why people are looking for stuff like this. And I’d rather they not have easy access to it,” Grambling said.
Channel 9 bought the list from a data brokerage company, one of dozens in the U.S. that scour the Internet and other public and private records to collect and sell consumer information.
Data brokers keep track of your age, occupation and health issues, what you bought, when you bought it and what you posted on social media -- anything to give companies an edge when they try to sell you things.
Attorney Ted Claypoole has written books on data brokers and said they operate behind a veil of secrecy and with few regulations.
He said the information gets pulled from websites and stores you visit, along with any surveys or applications you fill out.
“Whether it's about yourself or even about family members or somebody else, that information is going out into the system, and someone is there collecting it,” Claypoole said.
Claypoole said some data brokers offer ways to opt out, but many have unclear opt-out procedures or none at all.
Plus, most people have no clue they're on any list in the first place.
Channel 9 contacted the company it bought the list from.
Eyewitness News asked three separate times about how it collected the information, and what it had to say about the concerns of law enforcement.
The CEO said he would send a response, but never did.
“I just think of them as bottom feeders. That's what they are,” said Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey.
Bailey said the information that data brokers sell is dangerous.
“These people are out to make a buck. and they don't care who gets hurt,” Bailey said.
“They need to be aware there's a human element to this, that they could mess with somebody's lives,” Grambling said.
Grambling said law enforcement officers risk their lives to protect the communities they serve.
But now he wonders who is protecting them.
“If you work in law enforcement you try to keep your personal information private, and there it is, it's out there and somebody's selling it,” Grambling said.
Federal lawmakers are investigating the data brokerage industry.
The senate commerce committee, federal trade commission, ACLU and consumer financial protection bureau are all pushing for more regulations to allow consumers to opt out of data collection and sharing by brokers.
CLICK HERE for more consumer advice from the Federal Trade Commission.
CLICK HERE for more information about data brokers.