WASHINGTON — Consumers have won a big victory in favor of transparency for a change.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has decided it won’t remove from public view a complaint database that consumers use to ask for help in resolving financial issues, such as problems with a debt collector, mortgage lender, or student loan servicer.
For example, if you’ve tried but failed to get a credit bureau to remove erroneous information from your credit file, you’re almost certain to get a response if you submit a complaint to the CFPB.
This isn’t the typical “complaint box” where grievances go to die.
Since launching the database, the bureau has handled 1.9 million complaints and forwarded more than 1.3 million to companies for a reply, CFPB Director Kathleen Kraninger said during a recent speech at the National Consumer Empowerment Conference. More than 5,000 companies have responded to 97% of consumers filing a complaint, she said.
In fact, the US PIRG Education Fund, a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group, analyzed complaints made through the CFPB and found that more than 223,000 grievances resulted in relief for consumers. More than 75,000 people got money back from the companies they complained about, according to the report released earlier this year.
“The database opens a window onto the marketplace,” said Ed Mierzwinski, US PIRG senior director for Federal Consumer Programs. “There is no perfect way to study the financial industry. We need this window open.”
But as you might imagine, the companies being complained about don’t like the complaint database being public. They argue that people are only getting one side of the story and that the complaints might not be accurate. It should be noted that the Bureau also gives companies the option to post a public response.
“Since its inception, the Consumer Complaint Database has not been without controversy,” Kraninger said in a statement about the changes.
Mick Mulvaney, the former interim head of the CFPB and now acting White House chief of staff, didn’t want to keep the database public despite the fact that the bureau is required to provide certain information to Congress about complaints and responses. In referring to the rule Mulvaney said, “I don’t see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”
Consumer advocates contend that the complaint narratives potentially provide insight into illegal or unfair practices.
But to appease businesses, the CFPB is making some changes to the complaint system, most notably adding disclaimers, which the agency is calling “enhancements.”
The bureau is also exploring how to put consumer complaints in context by adding market share and company size. The theory being large companies with a huge consumer base would of course have more complaints.
In the meantime, let me put the CFPB disclosure language in context with Mierzwinski’s assistance.
CFPB says: “This database is not a statistical sample of consumers’ experiences in the marketplace . . . Complaint volume should be considered in the context of company size and/or market share. For example, companies with more customers may have more complaints than companies with fewer customers.”
I say: Don’t let this clear shill for the companies deter you from looking through the information for similarities to your situation. Go to consumerfinance.gov/complaint to view other people’s stories. Click “yes” to show complaints with narratives.
“The database has tremendous value,” Mierzwinski said. “That’s why industry wanted it shut down, not because it needed to be viewed in context but because it opened a clear window on the marketplace they wanted kept shut.”
CFPB says: “We don’t verify all the allegations in complaint narratives.” And “Unproven allegations in consumer narratives should be regarded as opinion, not fact.”
I say: Well here we go — the old “alternative fact” defense, a line made infamous by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Yes, in telling their story consumers are conveying the situation from their point of view. But think about how unjust something must feel for someone to take the time to file a grievance.
“One complaint may not say much about a firm, but if as few as two or three consumers tell the same story, others might say, ‘that’s exactly what happened to me’ and file a complaint, too, which will lead to needed changes at the firm, or even to a pattern or practice enforcement action,” Mierzwinski said.
CFPB says: “Complaints can give us insights into problems people are experiencing in the marketplace and help us regulate consumer financial products and services under existing federal consumer financial laws.”
I say: The CFPB made the right call in not shutting down the consumer complaint database. Let there be light.
Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary @washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.