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CFPB: Let's add consumer narratives to online complaint base

Proposal would add context, detect trends, aid decision making

CFPB: Let's add consumer narratives to online complaint base

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed a new policy that would allow consumers to voluntarily add narratives to the complaints they file with the agency.

“When consumers decide to submit a complaint to the Consumer Bureau, they provide basic information about the complaint and about themselves. They are then asked to describe what happened. These narrative descriptions form the heart and soul of the complaint. They include all the details, the nuances, and the rest of the story that really explain the problem just as they understand it,” says Richard Cordray, CFPB director, speaking at a field hearing in El Paso, Texas.

Since July 2011, CFPB has accepted complaints about consumer financial products, including credit cards, mortgages, bank accounts, private student loans, vehicle and other consumer loans, credit reporting, money transfers, debt collection, and payday loans. Currently, information submitted include identification of the consumer (although this is not entered in the public database), who the complaint is against, and when it occurred. A text box allows them to briefly describe what happened, and the ability to attach documents.

The agency forwards the complaint to the company, allows the company to respond, gives the consumer a tracking number, and keeps the consumer updated on its status. To date, the bureau has handled more than 400,000 complaints.

“An important benefit of making the narratives public would be to provide important context that better explains the significance of the consumer’s complaint. While the current database captures the basics of a complaint, the categorical descriptions are fairly limited. Right now, the database groups complaints into high-level categories such as ‘transaction issue’ or ‘advertising and marketing.’ Hearing directly from the consumer about exactly what happened would say much more. The narrative supplies vital information about why the consumer believes they were harmed, and how the problem has affected the consumer’s life,” Cordray says.

The recent proposal would add the capability for the consumer to describe, first-hand, what happened. CFPB says the benefits of this include:

• Providing context to the complaint.

• Spotlighting specific trends.

• Helping consumers make informed decisions.

• Spurring competition based on consumer satisfaction.

In order to provide safeguards of publishing such narratives, the proposal would require the following:

• Consumers must opt-in, with informed consent.

• No personal information would be shared, such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, or other direct identifiers.

• Companies can publish their response next to the consumer’s stories, and, in most cases, would appear at the same time as the consumer’s narrative so that  reviewers can see both sides concurrently.

• Consumers would have the ability to withdraw consent for the publishing of their narratives.

ABA, in response to the proposal, doubts how effective it would be. In a statement, Richard Riese, ABA senior vice president, says: “While the banking industry is committed to helping consumers make informed and responsible financial decisions, public disclosure of unverified consumer complaint narratives doesn't advance that goal and raises significant consumer privacy issues.”

Comments would be received for 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The proposal is available at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201407_cfpb_proposed-policy_consumer-complaint-database.pdf

For more information, go to http://www.consumerfinance.gov/newsroom/cfpb-proposal-would-give-consumers-the-opportunity-to-publicly-voice-complaints-about-financial-companies/.

John Ginovsky

John Ginovsky is a contributing editor of Banking Exchange and editor of the publication’s Tech Exchange e-newsletter. For more than two decades he’s written about the commercial banking industry, specializing in its technological side and how it relates to the actual business of banking. In addition to his weekly blogs—"Making Sense of It All"—he contributes fresh, original stories to each Tech Exchange issue based on personal interviews or exclusive contributed pieces. He previously was senior editor for Community Banker magazine (which merged into ABA Banking Journal) and for ABA Banking Journal and was managing editor and staff reporter for ABA’s Bankers News. Email him at jginovsky@sbpub.com.

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