Consumer watchdog agency considers deleting complaints from website

More than 1 million gripes about financial businesses filed with CFPB could be kept from public view

Fred O. Williams
Senior Reporter
Expert on consumer credit laws and regulations.

CFPB

The U.S. government’s consumer watchdog agency may delete more than 1 million complaints about companies from its website, the agency’s Trump-appointed leader told the Senate Thursday.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched a review of its public complaint database in March with a formal request for comments from the public.

The complaints are searchable on the CFPB website – minus people’s names and identifying information – with gripes about banks, credit cards, debt collectors and other financial businesses. They extend back to 2011.

“Are you using this RFI [request for information] to remove it from public view?” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., asked during a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee.

“It’s not my intent – it is one option available,” CFPB acting director John M. “Mick” Mulvaney replied. “If I make that decision, it’s completely my decision under the statute,” he added. The comment period ends June 4, 2018.

Contentious CFPB hearings on Capitol Hill

The exchange capped two days of contentious hearings for Mulvaney on Capitol Hill. Democratic lawmakers blasted him for the bureau’s inactivity, with zero enforcement crackdowns on companies since he was appointed by President Trump in November 2017. That followed the resignation of Obama-appointed Director Richard Cordray.

Mulvaney, and allies in the Republican Party, said the criticism of his deregulatory policies just proves their argument that the bureau’s sole director has too much latitude. The CFPB budget comes from the Federal Reserve, without Congressional approval.

“I don’t know if any director of any bureaucracy has come to you and said, ‘Please take my power away,’ but that’s what I’m doing,” Mulvaney told the committee.

The Dodd-Frank Act made the agency independent of Congress to insulate it from industry influence. The president has limited authority to replace a CFPB director, once confirmed by the Senate.

"I don't know if any director of any bureaucracy has come to you and said, 'Please take my power away,' but that's what I'm doing."

Appeals court considers whether to remove Mulvaney

Also Thursday, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments on whether Mulvaney’s appointment by the White House violated the agency’s independence.

The panel of three judges sounded skeptical that they could permanently replace Mulvaney with his challenger – Leandra English, Cordray’s deputy director.

However, they raised the possibility that Mulvaney might be disqualified from the job because of his other role as director of the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB is not supposed to have oversight of the consumer bureau.

A ruling on that basis would allow President Trump to appoint another acting director. English “might get her job back for half a day, or an hour or so, until the president names somebody else,” Judge Patricia A. Millett said.

Administration on record against public complaint data

Mulvaney said his mind is not made up about removing the complaints from public view.

However, the Trump administration has previously signaled its desire to drop the public database. A June 2017 report from the Treasury recommended that only government agencies – not the public – should have access.

“Commenters have objected that the database may provide misleading or incomplete information to consumers because it does not indicate whether a complaint reflects dissatisfaction with legitimate terms of service, as opposed to actual wrongdoing,” the report states. Industry groups are among the critics of the public database.

Among the questions the CFPB is asking in its information request is whether the advantages of posting company names publicly outweighs the disadvantages.

Consumer advocates and researchers say the CFPB’s public complaint data are a boon for checking out companies and understanding the pitfalls of financial services.

“This has been a hugely important resource for policymakers and academics,” Southern University Law Center professor Chris Odinet said on Twitter. “We don’t want to see it closed to the public.”

Consumer advocates and researchers say the CFPB's public complaint data are a boon for checking out companies and understanding the pitfalls of financial services.

How to check out a company’s complaint file

The CFPB’s complaint database has more than 1 million complaint records aimed at financial service companies going back to 2011.

To check out a company:

  • Go to the CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database page.
  • Click on “View complaint data.”
  • Type company name in search box.
  • If company name doesn’t come up, try another version. For example, Chase Bank is listed under JPMorgan Chase & Co, and Midland Funding is under Encore Capital Group.
  • Results will show the total number of complaints and list them, starting with the most recent.
  • You can narrow the search by selecting a “product” such as credit cards, student loans, debt collection, etc.
  • Drill into the details by clicking on individual complaint records.

How the CFPB handles consumer complaints

When the CFPB gets a consumer complaint, it contacts the company and verifies that the person is a customer.

Then it tracks the company’s response – including whether the company paid a refund or not. Most complaints are published on the website within 15 days, the time frame for companies to respond. A major exception: The CFPB refers complaints about smaller banks – those with under $10 billion in assets – to other regulators.

The Dodd-Frank Act requires the CFPB to listen to consumer complaints and try to help resolve them. It doesn’t require the bureau to publish complaint data.

The CFPB made the data public to give consumers a way of checking out a company’s record. The move was also designed to put pressure on companies to fix problems that generated complaints from customers.

Consumers voice opinion on CFBP complaint database

The few comments filed so far display a range of opinions.

“Transparency enables the public to recognize possible complaint patterns,” Atlanta resident Randy Hubbell wrote. “Consequently, public records will motivate the most complained about companies to adapt or update unfair or unlawful practices.”

“Please keep publishing consumer complaints!” wrote Becky Thelen, who did not give her address. “This holds companies accountable for their actions, or lack of action, and it allows other consumers to adequately vet companies.”

Researcher Zachary Heller recommended that the data do a better job of identifying banks. The bank names used in the data are too ambiguous to identify specific entities, making it impossible to match them with other data, he wrote.

“The data here should be more structured and include the specific [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] FDIC ID so we can better join external databases,” Heller commented.

How to file a comment about the CFPB’s public complaint database

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is asking the public to comment about its open database of complaints about companies.
  • The docket number is “CFPB-2018-0006” on the Regulations.gov website.
  • Among the possible changes are removing company names from public view, or removing the entire database from the internet.
  • To view comments or submit one of your own, navigate to the “Bureau Public Reporting Practices of Consumer Complaint Information” page.
  • The “Comment Now” button lets you post your remarks.
  • You can post anonymously if you want. Don’t fill in the blanks for First Name and Last Name.
  • In your remarks, don’t include anything you don’t want shared on the internet.
  • The comment period ends June 4, 2018.

See related: Under Trump appointee, CFPB is reversing consumer protectionTrump appointee promises “dramatically different” CFPB


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Updated: 07-19-2018