CFPB complaint portal will remain public, with changes banks sought

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will maintain public access to its consumer complaint database, but the agency is also making changes intended to soften industry criticism of the portal.

The CFPB said Tuesday that it will continue to publish complaints and their underlying data on the agency's website, including consumers’ narrative descriptions of their complaints. The decision by the agency comes more than a year after former acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney signaled that the agency might stop publicizing complaints.

“The continued publication of the database, along with the enhancements, empowers consumers and informs the public,” CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger said in a press release.

Yet the bureau also announced changes that appear to be meant to combat the perception that a complaint against a financial firm is proof of guilt. The agency said it will display disclosures "more prominently" clarifying that the database "is not a statistical sample of consumers’ experiences in the marketplace."

Industry representatives said they welcomed changes to the portal.

“For too long, the Bureau’s unverified compliant database has functioned to paint a picture of guilt through government press releases and statements — despite the CFPB reporting the overwhelming majority of complaints being self-corrected by banks," Richard Hunt, CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, said in a statement. “These changes are an important first step in helping financial institutions better serve their customers and ensuring consumers’ needs are still heard.”

The database will also try to point consumers to answers to common questions "to help inform them before they submit a complaint," as well as emphasize that consumers can contact a company directly.

"The changes announced today ... and the work in the months ahead, will allow consumers to make better informed and educated decisions with the information the Bureau collects and publishes through its complaint portal,” Robert D. Broeksmit, CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in a statement.

After the complaint portal was first rolled out in the Obama administration, many in the industry and the GOP sought to shut the public database database. Mulvaney once called the database “essentially a taxpayer-funded Yelp for financial institutions.”

While unverified complaints will still be included in the database, a CBA spokesperson said the changes "are a step in the right direction."

Encouraging consumers to contact financial firms directly for answers to specific questions is "the process used by the Better Business Bureau, which asks users to confirm they have attempted to resolve their concern," the spokesperson said.

Kraninger said "enhanced data and context" about complaints "will benefit consumers and users of the database while addressing many of the concerns raised” about the portal.

A primary concern about the database from financial firms and trade groups has been that the CFPB uses complaints as a partial basis for industry guidance, rulemaking and enforcement actions.

The industry has claimed that the complaints are not vetted and are prone to errors.

American Banker found in 2015 that a single complaint that was referred by another agency became 35 different entries in the database because of the way the CFPB creates a new complaint for any entity that is named.

Last year, Mulvaney asked for public input on the way the CFPB receives and processes complaints from consumers as a preliminary step to improve the process. The bureau received nearly 26,000 comments on the request for information, Kraninger said.

The bureau said it is exploring ways to put the complaint data in context, such as by “incorporating product or service market share and company size."

It will also look into ways to expand the ability of financial firms to respond publicly to individual complaints.

The CFPB said it will further enhance the database in coming months by building and launching visualization tools to help users understand marketplace conditions.

The CFPB said it has handled more than 1.9 million complaints and that more than 5,000 financial companies have responded through this process.

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Customer data Regulatory reform Customer service Consumer banking Compliance Kathy Kraninger CFPB
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