WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced today it is finalizing a policy to empower consumers to voice publicly their complaints about consumer financial products and services.

Now, when consumers submit a complaint to the CFPB, they have the option to share their account of what happened in the CFPB’s public-facing Consumer Complaint Database. The CFPB is also publishing a request for information seeking public input on ways to highlight positive consumer experiences, such as by receiving consumer compliments.  

“Consumer narratives shed light on the full consumer perspective behind a complaint,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Narratives humanize the problems consumers face in the marketplace. Today’s policy will serve to empower consumers by helping them make informed decisions and helping track trends in the consumer financial market.”

The announcement didn't sit well with American Financial Services Association, which issued a statement critical of the CFPB's new policy to F&I and Showroom. "Because consumers are likely to assume a level of accuracy and validity in the complaints posted on a government website, the CFPB's publicizing unsubstantiated consumer narratives that could mislead consumers," stated Bill Himpler, the association's executive vice president. "In additional, publishing unverified and unfiltered claims could pose significant brand and reputational risk to financial services companies."

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which created the CFPB, established the handling of consumer complaints as an integral part of the CFPB’s work. The CFPB began accepting complaints as soon as it opened its doors more than three years ago in July 2011. As of March 1, the bureau has handled 558,800 complaints, with mortgages and debt collection being the most frequent topics.

In June 2012, the CFPB launched its Consumer Complaint Database, which is the nation’s largest public collection of consumer financial complaints. It includes basic, anonymous, individual-level information about the complaints received, including the date of submission, the consumer’s ZIP code, the relevant company, the product type, the issue the consumer is complaining about, and how the company handled the complaint.

In July 2014, the CFPB proposed a policy that would allow consumers to publicly share their stories when they submit complaints to the bureau. Today, the Bureau is finalizing its consumer narrative policy after receiving and considering comments from consumer groups, trade associations, companies, and individuals.

When consumers submit a complaint to the bureau, they fill in information such as who they are, who the complaint is against, and when it occurred. They are also given a text box to describe what happened and can attach documents to the complaint. The bureau then forwards the complaint to the company for response, gives the consumer a tracking number and keeps the consumer updated on its status.

Starting today, when consumers submit a complaint to the CFPB, they will now have the option to check a box and opt-in to sharing their narrative. In order for companies to learn about this new system, the bureau will not publish any consented-to narrative for at least 90 days after the policy’s publication in the Federal Register.

The bureau said in a press release that its policy recognizes the importance of protecting consumers’ private information, ensuring the informed consent of any consumer who participates, and providing companies with an opportunity to respond. The AFSA's Himpler, however, called the new policy "impracticable and unworkable."

"The AFSA remains concerned that the CFPB's Consumer Complaint Database does not adequately protect consumers' privacy," he said.

According to the CFPB, its policy "establishes a number of important safeguards for a clear, fair, and transparent process," including:

  • Consumers must opt-in to share their story: The CFPB will not publish the complaint narrative unless the consumer provides informed consent. This means that when consumers submit a complaint through consumerfinance.gov, they have to affirmatively check a consent box to give the bureau permission to publish their narrative. Currently, only narratives submitted online are available for the opt-in to publish.
  • Personal information will be removed from narratives: The Bureau will take reasonable steps to remove personal information from the complaint to minimize the risk of re-identification. This means the CFPB will use a thorough process to ensure complaints are scrubbed of information such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, and other direct identifiers.
  • Companies can choose a response to publish: Companies will be given the option to select from a set list of structured response options as a public-facing response to address the consumer complaints. Companies will be under no obligation to offer a public response, and they have 180 days after the consumer complaint is routed to them to select the optional, public response. Companies will have the option to address all consumer complaints submitted after this policy announcement, not just those where a consumer consented to publication.
  • Consumers can opt-out at any time: If a consumer decides at any time that he or she would like to withdraw consent to publish their narrative in the Consumer Complaint Database, he or she has the ability to do so.
  • Complaints must meet certain criteria to qualify for narrative publication: In order for the bureau to publicly share a consumer’s complaint narrative, the complaint must meet certain requirements. Such requirements include that the complaint is submitted through the CFPB website, that the complaint is not a duplicate submission, and that the consumer has a confirmed relationship with the financial institution. Complaints will not be published if they do not meet all of the publication criteria.

Today’s policy builds on the safeguards the CFPB’s database already has in place. Complaints are listed in the database only after the company responds to the complaint or after it has had the complaint for 15 days, whichever comes first. The CFPB will disclose the consumer narrative when the company provides its public-facing response, or after the company has had the complaint for 60 calendar days, whichever comes first.

The bureau is also issuing a notice and request for information (RFI) seeking input from the public on the potential collection and sharing of information about consumers’ positive interactions with financial service providers.

The Bureau sees two options for sharing positive consumer feedback about companies. One option is to provide more information about a company’s complaint handling, such as highlighting the quality of responses to consumers. The second option is to collect and provide consumer compliments independent of the complaint process. Today’s RFI seeks input on these options and welcomes other ideas.

Originally posted on F&I and Showroom