As the CFPB's Database Grows, the Complaint Picture Gets Clearer

The Dodd-Frank Act charged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with protecting consumers, and one piece of this protection involves taking consumer complaints. Thus was born the CFPB consumer complaint system and public database, which takes complaints from the general public on everything from mortgages and debt collection to student loans, money transfers, and more. How is it working so far? U.S. PIRG has issued a series of reports analyzing the complaints submitted to this relatively new  database, and their fourth and most recent report is “Credit Cards, Consumer Complaints: The CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database Gets Real Results for Credit Card Holders.”

The report finds that nearly 40 percent of credit card complaints made to the CFPB have resulted in tangible relief to the consumer, with a median relief amount of $128. Additionally, non-monetary relief provided by the CFPB has included such actions as adjusting someone’s interest rates or correcting the records of a credit reporting agency. The CFPB has helped nearly 10,000 consumers get some relief on their credit card issues. PIRG also found that consumers were most likely to complain about billing disputes, with the next most popular complaints involving difficulties with APR or interest rates and trouble with identify theft, fraud, and embezzlement.

The CFPB has been collecting credit-card complaints since July 2011, and has expanded its complaint system to include additional financial products and services since then. PIRG’s past reports on the complaint database have analyzed complaints dealing with bank accounts, private student loans, and credit reporting. In Big Banks, Big Complaints, a report focused on complaints relating to bank accounts, PIRG found that 28 percent of such complaints resulted in monetary relief to consumers, and that the banks that generated the most complaints were also the biggest—Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase. The report focused on private student loan complaints, Private Loans, Public Complaints, found that the most complained-about lender in every state was Sallie Mae—not too surprising since the company dominates the private student lending market. Here, the CFPB was able to help a smaller proportion of borrowers than in other categories; about 8 percent of those who submitted complaints on student loans – some 330 consumers – got monetary compensation. Others received non-monetary relief, such as help modifying collections proceedings and assistance with documentation.  Beyond helping individual consumers, the CFPBs complaint database is a tool that can help the agency identify trends and spot problems that should be addressed through guidance, rulemaking, or other means. Even unsolved complaints, in other words, can have practical value.

Finally, in Big Credit Bureaus, Big Mistakes, the report focused on the credit reporting industry, PIRG found that the three big nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) varied significantly in how they responded to complaints, with Equifax providing relief (both monetary and non-monetary) nearly three times as often as TransUnion and more than 10 times as often as Experian. The most common complaint involved incorrect information on a credit report. The CFPB was able to help almost 3,000 consumers, or just under 30 percent of those who complained.

The PIRG reports also suggest ways in which the CFPB can make its database more user-friendly by, for example, publishing the actual narratives of consumer complaints, adding clearer definitions of terms and instructions, and providing more detailed complaint categories and subcategories.