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Color of Money: Got a grievance against a credit bureau? Post your complaint here and you're more likely to get a response.

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes it pays to complain.

This is especially true at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The watchdog agency has a complaint database that consumers can use to ask for help in resolving financial issues, such as problems with a mortgage, debt or student loan.

In fact, if you've tried to get a credit bureau to remove erroneous information without any progress, try submitting your complaint here: www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint.

And, what do you know? Having the powerful regulatory agency behind you has the effect of making a company respond in a timely manner -- often resolving the issue in your favor.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group, analyzed the CFPB's complaint database and found that more than 223,000 grievances resulted in relief for consumers. More than 70,000 people got money back from the companies they complained about, according to the recently released report.

Here are some of the report's key findings:

-- The CFPB has received more than 1.5 million complaints since the database was established in 2011. In 2018, the agency published more than 257,000 complaints.

-- The three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- have the most complaints. However, because each bureau has roughly 220 million consumer files, the number of complaints would naturally be higher, argues Francis Creighton, president and chief executive of the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit-reporting companies.

"You have to put the complaint numbers in context," Creighton said.

-- In 2018, 43% of total complaints involved issues involving consumer credit reports or credit-repair services. As I looked through the database, I saw that quite a number of people were upset that their credit scores were being harmed because of incorrect payment history.

"The complaints against the three nationwide credit bureaus are particularly worrisome since consumers do not choose to do business with these companies," the PIRG report said. "A consumer can respond to wrongdoing by a bank, for example, by simply choosing a competitor. But with credit bureaus, you cannot vote with your feet. The bureaus collect and sell your information without your consent, which is why strong oversight by the CFPB is needed."

-- Close to half of the complaints were filed against 10 companies. Along with the three major credit bureaus, they were: Bank of America, Capital One, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, student-loan servicer Navient, and mortgage-servicing company Ocwen.

-- Filed complaints get a 97% timely response from companies. The CFPB, which forwards complaints to the companies, says consumers generally get a reply within 15 days.

"Because a company's response, or lack thereof, is published publicly within two weeks of a complaint's receipt, companies are incentivized to provide timely responses," said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director at U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

 

Highlighting the success of the complaint database is also part of the group's effort to keep it easily accessible.

"Consumers are getting timely responses, getting their money back, and getting their problems fixed precisely because complaints are made public," Litt said. "I certainly read the complaints of others. There is a treasure trove of information in the database to help consumers navigate the marketplace. Reading through the complaints also helps watchdog groups, academics and the private sector highlight problems and help consumers."

Meanwhile, Mick Mulvaney, the former interim head of the CFPB and now acting White House chief of staff, has made it known that he isn't a fan of keeping the database public.

Referring to the rule that requires the bureau to provide certain information to Congress about complaints and responses, Mulvaney said last year, "I don't see anything in here that I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government."

"This is an issue that the Bureau continues to evaluate and as Director [Kathy] Kraninger has stated before it is on the agenda to address this year," the agency said in a statement.

Last year, the CFPB solicited comments on potential changes to the public-reporting practices of consumer-complaint information. The bureau received more than 23,000 comments.

"The complaint database forces accountability and transparency onto these institutions," one person wrote. "Consumers can make informed choices when they know the business history of the institution they are considering doing business with."

A letter from 15 veteran and military-service groups, which urged that the database not be closed to the public, also arrived during the comment period.

"Because service members, veterans, their families, and survivors are targets for consumer fraud by predatory financial companies, it is essential that their complaints are not hidden from the public," the groups wrote.

The CFPB should keep the light shining bright on consumer complaints. In darkness is where dirty deeds hide.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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