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On banks, Mass. gives new agency an earful

State ranks 9th in complaints to federal consumer watchdog

File photo

Colm O’Molloy for The Boston Globe

File photo

Maybe it was those 86 years of frustration with the Red Sox. Maybe the long winters. Maybe the venal politicians.

All these things that Bostonians love to complain about perhaps provided the practice that put Massachusetts among the top 10 states in lodging complaints about banks and other financial institutions.

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Massachusetts ranked ninth, tied with Maine, in number of complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new federal agency established in reaction to the recent financial crisis. Consumers in Massachusetts lodged about five complaints per 100,000 residents, compared with the US average of four.

Washington, D.C., residents filed the most complaints, 13 per 100,000 residents.

“This surprises me,” said Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, New York native, and author of the book “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching; A Five-Step Guide to Creative Complaining.

“As far as I can tell,” she said, “no one beats New Yorkers when it comes to complaining.”

Complaints made to the consumer bureau were analyzed by ValuePenguin.com, a consumer-oriented financial startup.

Cofounder Ting Pen said that Washington — along with Delaware and Maryland — may have ranked at the top because of their proximity to the seat of the federal government, which may have made them more familiar with the new agency.

It might be that a lot of consumers elsewhere are not aware of the consumer bureau, he said.

“And it is a good resource,” he added.

The bureau, created in a 2011, accepts complaints about financial products and services, including mortgages, student loans, and credit cards.

Its website — www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/ — is for consumers who have not been able to reach a remedy with a company directly. The site promises to “work to get a response” for consumers.

There were 336 complaints from Massachusetts residents in 2013, and one in four of those consumers won refunds, about the same as the national average. The average refund in Massachusetts was $125.

Some types of complaints resulted in refunds more often than others. Massachusetts residents had one of the highest rates of winning disputes over miscellaneous fees, such as annual card fees. They won those disputes 82 percent of the time when the agency intervened.

Massachusetts consumers won disputes about late fees 68 percent of the time and conflicts about delinquent accounts 45 percent of the time.

Amy Jean Schmitz, a University of Colorado law professor who authored “Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky Wheel System,” an article published in the Pepperdine Law Review, said companies know they can save money by rewarding only those who are the most persistent complainers with a fix.

And if they do help those “high-impact” customers, it ultimately fosters a greater sense of consumer loyalty.

High-impact customers might be those with many Facebook friends and Twitter followers or people with the best credit scores. They may also have time and energy to devote to complaining and following through on a complaint, one of the key ways to get it resolved.

“The most sophisticated consumers are most likely to complain,” she said.

“And they’re the most likely to get remedies.”

Megan Woolhouse
can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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