Research and Statistics

Mid-Atlantic complains most about credit card problems


Washington, D.C., and neighboring states file the most complaints per capita about credit cards with the federal consumer financial regulator

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People around the country have run-ins with their credit card companies, but some areas have more problems than others — or are they just more vocal about it?

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau publishes data about the complaints it collects, illustrating the problems consumers have with their cards and other financial services. Individuals’ names and identifying details are left out, of course. But the trove of gripes does indicate the state and even the ZIP code where the complaint comes from.

So where is plastic most out of favor?

On a per-capita basis, Washington, D.C., had the most complaints about credit cards during the two years that the CFPB has kept its complaint window open. Neighboring states Delaware and Maryland were No. 2 and No. 3, making the mid-Atlantic region a hotbed of discontent. The chart shows complaints about credit cards per 100,000 residents from November 2011 through the end of last year. New York and New Jersey round out the top five complaint-prone states.

About three quarters of U.S. consumers have at least one credit card, according to Federal Reserve statistics, so cardholders are numerous throughout the country. But looking at complaints from the neighborhood level brings some demographic trends into focus. Well-heeled, coastal ZIP code areas in big cities seem to have the most issues with their cards — or at least, they are quicker to bellyache about it.

True to their stereotype, New Yorkers take the crown for kvetching, with five of the top-10 ZIP codes for complaints coming from the city. The Big, Grumpy Apple tended to have the most trouble with billing disputes, which was also the No. 1 credit card complaint nationally. Billing disputes involve credit card charges that consumers don’t want to pay, making the complaint a three-sided affair in which the merchant who sold the item bears at least some responsibility.

Are New Yorkers more aware as consumers, or just feistier when they feel they’ve been wronged? A spokeswoman at the Metropolitan New York Better Business Bureau wouldn’t speculate about any special knack for whining that the region might possess. But the BBB does have its own data showing that financial services are a local issue.

“In 2012, the top complaint category was financial services, although that encompasses more than credit card complaints,” BBB Marketing Director Tracey Anton wrote in an email response to questions. The agency logged 6,611 complaints about financial services in 2012, which include banking, insurance and debt collection as well as credit cards.

Floridians were also frequent gripers about credit cards, inhabiting three of the 10 unhappiest ZIP codes. Sunshine State residents had more problems with identity theft than New Yorkers. That fits with data from the Federal Trade Commission, whose complaint totals show that Florida is at the top of the list for ID theft and fraud problems.

Two California ZIP codes, from Los Angeles and Napa, in Northern California, round out the 10 most disgruntled neighborhoods, making credit card misery a bi-coastal phenomenon.

Over the long term, however, friction with credit card issuers is cooling off. Complaints to the CFPB about cards dropped 16 percent in 2013. Customer service tracker J.D. Power said that fits with trends they see in customer satisfaction surveys, which indicate cardholders have been having fewer problems since the recession ended and default rates began to come down.

The map below reflects total complaints lodged with the CFPB for all products since 2011. The Products include mortgages — the No. 1 source of gripes — as well as debt collection, credit reporting, banking and credit cards. State concentrations are based on the number of complaints per 100,000 people.

“The fact that the economy is improving and consumers generally feel better about their personal financial situations is certainly helping to improve satisfaction with credit card issuers, especially considering there was such instability in the industry just a few years ago,” Jim Miller, senior director of banking services at J.D. Power, said in a statement about the firm’s 2013 credit card satisfaction survey.

See previous story:Credit card complaints reveal 2012 trouble hot spots

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