Big Finance’s Ploy to Keep Consumers in the Dark

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently announced a plan to significantly expand the information that consumers can choose to make public when they file complaints. The bureau currently takes complaints involving credit cards, student loans, mortgages and checking accounts (among other financial products and services), posting a record of the company name and complaint category in each case. If the new plan goes forward, its public database will begin to include individual stories as well, minus identifying information.

The financial industry has let us know just how much it dislikes this proposal: enough to misrepresent it through and through.

The bureau has plainly said that it will continue forwarding every complaint to the appropriate company and giving the company 15 days to respond before a complaint is published. In addition, the bureau is now proposing to give both parties a chance to tell their stories, with the company’s account posted directly alongside the consumer’s.

You would never know this, however, from the massive media campaign launched on Monday by the Financial Services Roundtable, the trade association of the nation’s biggest banks, insurance, asset management, finance and credit card companies. In a blitz of public statements, blog posts, social media messages and attack ads on the walls of the Washington Metro system, the Roundtable paints a menacing picture of “bureaucrats” posting baseless complaints and giving companies “little opportunity to respond,” so that, as Roundtable CEO Tim Pawlenty wrongly put it, people see “only one side of the story.” The Roundtable has created an entire mini-website based on this falsehood.

What’s going on here? Were Pawlenty & Co. in such a rush to denounce the proposal that they forgot to read it? More likely, they’re playing fast and loose with the truth because they would rather not come right out and say that what they really object to is the whole idea of a public database where people can learn about specific consumer grievances and how they’ve been addressed by the companies the Roundtable represents.

The Consumer Bureau (the target of this and many previous industry attacks) is the agency originally proposed by Elizabeth Warren in 2007, and formally established by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law of 2010. Its mission is to bring basic standards of safety and transparency to a market that had become notorious for its abusive practices – practices that imposed huge hidden costs on consumers, besides contributing to the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic meltdown that followed.

The complaint system provides the bureau with valuable real-world insights to apply in its rule-making, supervision and enforcement. By making some of the data public, the bureau hopes to empower consumers and, at the same time, to inspire companies to seriously investigate and respond to complaints, since it would be impractical for the bureau to investigate them all. (There were 113,000 filed last year.)

That system is already making a difference. The bureau’s Office of Consumer Response has received more than 400,000 complaints since it got up and running in 2012. More than 30,000 consumers have gotten monetary relief. Tens of thousands more cases have been resolved by other forms of remedial action.

But the complaint database has the potential to be far more effective if, as consumer groups have long urged, it includes a record of the specific problems that consumers have encountered, and the specific ways in which companies have dealt with those problems. This additional information will make it easier for consumers to spread the word about unfair practices, to compare competing companies and products, and to avoid dangers and pitfalls. It will help spur a virtuous cycle in which more people decide to use the system, and their contributions make it more useful still.

Financial companies also stand to benefit from the ability to compare their experiences with those of competitors, spot opportunities for improvement, and correct problems before they get out of control, the way bad mortgage lending did in the runup to the financial crisis.

For now, though, the industry seems to be stuck on a course of no-holds-barred opposition, and willing to traffic in multiple untruths in service of the cause. The Roundtable would have us believe, for example, that the “vast majority” of complaints filed with the bureau are totally unfounded and thus unworthy of publication. Its evidence? The fact that 70 percent of last year’s complaints “were closed with a simple explanation or clarification.”

Several large factual problems lurk inside this assertion. First of all, a “simple explanation or clarification” can be just what a consumer wants and needs; take the case of someone struggling with a mortgage and trying to find out what can be done to avoid foreclosure.

The use of the word “closed” is misleading in its own right. As the Consumer Bureau admits, its ability to follow up on individual complaints is limited. Cases can be closed without any investigation or adjudication by the agency; and they can be closed with a simple explanation or clarification essentially because that’s what the company saw fit to do. By no means does “closed” equate with resolved, as the industry implies.

Legitimate issues are often raised in complaints even if they involve no clear violation of law. The bureau has already drawn on the complaint database to identify worrisome patterns of conduct in credit card, debt collection, mortgage servicing and other areas, sometimes leading to proposals for new rules or procedures to make the financial marketplace safer.

In its ads, the Roundtable suggests that there is something extraordinary or unprecedented about having a government agency publish consumer complaints. That, too, is inaccurate; the Consumer Bureau is proposing a system that resembles, among other existing databases, one on product safety maintained by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The financial industry will probably not stir a great wave of public sympathy with its attacks on this proposal. Then again, public sympathy is not what it’s after. The sympathy it seeks is from lawmakers and regulators, and we can be sure it has other techniques – both cruder and more artful – for reaching them. We’re talking about an industry that (as documented in a new report from Americans for Financial Reform) spends about $1.5 million a day on campaign contributions and lobbying, leaving aside the cost of such ancillary activities as the Roundtable’s ad campaign.

So we can depend on the financial lobby to go all-out in its effort to derail the Consumer Bureau’s plan. That means that others must work equally hard to keep this worthy proposal on track.

– Jim Lardner

Originally published on USNews.com

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