CFPB launches public consumer complaint database

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Despite opposition from the financial industry, the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today launched a public database of consumer complaints about credit cards–including the name of the company issuing the card–received since June 1. The beta version of the database is available for viewing and downloading on the agency's website. The Bureau plans to add to and tweak it in the months ahead with complaints about other financial products, such as mortgages, student and other types of loans, and banking charges and fees.

"No longer will consumer complaints only be known to the individual complainant, bank, regulator, and those in the public willing to pursue this information through the Freedom of Information Act. Instead this data-rich window into consumer financial issues will be widely available to everyone: developers, policymakers, journalists, academics, industry, and you. Our goal is to improve the transparency and efficiency of the credit card market to further empower American consumers," wrote Scott Pluta on the agency's blog. The agency also released this "snapshot" of the more than 45,000 complaints it has received since it began collecting them, which may eventually be incorporated into the database.

In making this complaint data public on a searchable website, the agency joins a select crowd: two other government agencies publish public databases of consumer complaints–the National Hightway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A third agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collects consumer complaints through its Consumer Sentinel system but does not provide the raw data to the public.

A number of financial industry groups filed comments objecting to CFPB's new database, such as this letter from the American Bankers Association, sent in January:  "The complaint data are incomplete, unrepresentative, and unverified, and therefore, if released according to specific categories as proposed, an unreliable and misleading source of information about customer experience and satisfaction with the value, reliability, and functionality of any financial product that will mislead consumers," the association argued.

This group letter, also sent in January, signed by the American Financial Services Association, the Consumer Mortgage Coalition, and the Mortgage Bankers Association made its point bluntly: "We strongly believe that the name of the card issuer should not be disclosed in the credit card complaint database or in the CFPB’s public reports. There is no public policy purpose served by the release of data by issuer. Disclosing the names of individual card issuers serves only as fodder for plaintiff attorneys."

Overall, the agency said it had received nine letters from 11 industry groups, as well as a credit union. The agency also received comments in favor of the public database, from groups such Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of consumer and labor organizations, and this one from the open government group OMB Watch.

To protect their privacy, CFPB will not publish the identities of the consumers making a complaint; however zip code information will be included so the data can be mapped. The data also includes information about whether and how the institution in question resolved the complaint.

It remains to be seen whether the financial industry will keep up the drum beat against the new public complaint database. Last year, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who counted Koch Industries as his top campaign donor, attempted to cut funding for the CPSC complaint database, which federal lobbying records showed that Koch had lobbied about.

In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Sunlight Foundation for the data underlying the Consumer Sentinel database, saying that the "resources required to process [the] request would cause un unreasonably burdensome review process." The agency collected 1.8 million complaints in 2011. Law enforcement agencies have access to the data in a searchable format, but the public does not.

 

About the data

What: Consumer complaint data filed with several federal agencies: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

Where: CFPB beta database can be found here; NHTSA complaint database here; CPSC database, here. The FTC publishes analyses of data collected in its Consumer Sentinel database here.

Availability and usability: All agencies offer data in a searchable format, with the exception of the FTC.