CFPB Proposes to Disclose Credit Card Complaint Data to the Public

By: Stephanie C. Robinson

It is no secret that the CFPB is taking great interest in consumers’ complaints about credit cards. From day one, a “submit a credit card complaint” icon has held a prominent position on the agency’s home page, and CFPB representatives have talked about how credit card offers and terms are sometimes too complicated for consumers to understand.

In an effort to help consumers make better-informed decisions about credit cards, the CFPB plans to publish periodic reports about trends and patterns in complaint data. The first such report, issued on November 30, 2011, presents statistics on the complaints received between July 21, 2011 and October 21, 2011. The three most common types of grievances involve: (1) billing disputes (13.4% of complaints); (2) APR or interest rate (11.0% of complaints); and (3) identity theft / fraud / embezzlement (10.8% of complaints).

Of course, these categories may not even be especially meaningful – the consumer selects the complaint type when submitting a complaint and the CFPB found that consumers do not have a consistent understanding of the category options. (Practice tip: Even though consumers are not checking the boxes correctly, card issuers may want to organize the complaints they receive into the same types of categories the CFPB is using.)

Not surprisingly, the report notes that in a large number of cases, the issuer and the consumer present conflicting factual accounts, but despite this, the issuers have been willing to resolve the complaints.

In addition to publishing periodic reports, the agency plans to make the “non-narrative” portions of consumer complaints accessible to the public in fully searchable and downloadable format. Those non-narrative data fields include date, issuer, zip code, and type of complaint (but not personal identifiers like consumer name and address). For now, the full text of the consumer’s complaint will not be included because those narratives may contain personally identifiable information. CFPB is asking for comment, however, on whether there are practical ways to disclose the narrative data without undermining privacy interests, such as through use of a consumer opt-in.

The rationale for disclosing the non-narrative data fields is that it will allow outside parties to identify trends and patterns that they believe may help inform consumer decisions about credit cards. In addition, though, it is reasonably foreseeable that any agency with standing and authority to do so may use the publicly available information as the basis for initiating investigations of issuers.

Comments on the CFPB’s proposed policy statement on the disclosure of credit card complaint data are due on January 30, 2012.

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