Public window on financial complaints could be closing soon

Monday, April 24, 2017

WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumers filed nearly 300,000 complaints last year about their dealings with banks, credit-card issuers and other financial-services companies.

Most of those complaints were compiled and made available for anyone to see as part of a database administered by the federal government.

But Republicans working to overhaul the financial regulation law known as Dodd-Frank want to bar publication of information from that database, which industry groups long have criticized as potentially misleading and incomplete.

"Is the purpose of the database just to name and shame companies? Or should they have a disclaimer on there that says it's a fact-free zone, or this is fake news? That's really what I see happening here," Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said at a congressional hearing this month.

"Once the damage is done to a company, it's hard to get your reputation back," said Bill Himpler, executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association, a trade group representing banks and other lenders. "Something needs to be done."

The exchange reflects what House Republicans are thinking as they try to make changes to Dodd-Frank, the law passed in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crises.

Initially, GOP lawmakers wanted to require consumer complaints be verified as accurate before they were published. Now, members of Congress want to prohibit publishing the complaints entirely.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to begin discussing the Dodd-Frank replacement. The legislation would relax some of the law's financial rules and give Congress and the White House more control over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which runs the complaints database.

That agency has published more than 730,000 complaints since launching the database nearly five years ago. Complaints are streaming in at a rate of more than 20,000 a month, but not all make it into the database. Some people don't fill out all the required information.

Also, many complaints are referred to other government agencies for jurisdictional reasons.

The information published includes the date, the consumer's ZIP code and the company involved. It includes how the company responded, whether it did so in a timely way and whether the consumer disputed the company's response.

The database has more than 130,000 complaints in which consumers shared a narrative of their experience. Companies select from among nine responses, such as "Company disputes the facts presented in the complaint" or "Company believes complaint is the result of an isolated error."

The bureau does not verify whether the complaint is valid before making it public. Complaints are added to the database after the company responds or after the company has had the complaint for 15 days, whichever comes first.

Some groups are alarmed at the potential changes.

Consumers Union said the database is a vital tool that can help consumers make informed decisions.

"It's not as if the CFPB is taking information and putting it on the database without some due diligence," said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. "Everything is transparent. Everything is out in the open. People can reach their own conclusions."

Banks said "consumers should not be kept in the blind" about trends that can emerge from listing the complaints, and companies concerned about serving the public should find the information of great use.

"In my mind, if you're treating consumers fairly, you would be eager to see if there is a problem," she said.

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