CFPB's Unfiltered Complaint Database Is Just White Noise

Richard Hunt

Office pools are in full swing as March Madness begins. While sports analysts provide ample entertainment, their predictions have time and again forced me to shell out to my victorious colleagues. For this reason, I shut out the chatter and focus on the stats.

The importance of drilling down to the stats can't help but remind me of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's complaint portal. (Hazard of the job.) On Thursday, the CFPB announced it has finalized its policy to allow unverified consumer complaint narratives to be included in its consumer complaint database. This announcement is a perfect example of chatter overshadowing the facts.

Don't get me wrong: members of the Consumer Bankers Association are committed to quickly resolving customer complaints and are in constant communication with customers to ensure their concerns are resolved. However, publishing unverified complaints—not to mention narratives—on a government-sponsored website does nothing to help consumers make more informed financial decisions.

Mapping out a bracket is nothing compared to navigating the overwhelmingly complex world of financial products. This is why regulators must use their unique power to help educate consumers about banking trends and portray an accurate industry picture. The Department of Transportation, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Product Safety Commission all have means to verify or contextualize the complaints on their portals. In so doing, these agencies provide consumers with accurate, helpful information to make more informed decisions.

For instance, the CPSC—the very agency the CFPB was modeled after—maintains a detailed verification process that gives companies the opportunity to appeal inaccurate complaints. This process eliminates misleading data and helps consumers hone in on information that is truly valuable.

The DOT provides consumers with its airline rankings according to the rate of complaints (per 100,000 passengers) and airline size. This approach gives customers basic proportional context when reading complaints—preventing data from being skewed one way or another.

In an effort to further cut through the chatter, the FTC's long-established and effective "sentinel" portal shares consumer complaints exclusively with law enforcement and government agencies. This approach allows it to partner with companies to improve the industry while effectively rooting out bad actors.

The CFPB, on the other hand, chooses not to use any of these illuminating mechanisms. It constantly claims to be a data-driven agency, but what kind of data is it putting forward? Allowing unsubstantiated, unverified, non-contextual data to populate the system needlessly entices consumers to rely on potentially inaccurate information to make decisions.

It is also important to remember that of the roughly 14,000 banks and credit unions in this country, the CFPB portal only publishes complaints about those within its purview: institutions with more than $10 billion in assets. That means about 110 institutions are being singled out in this complaint portal. The portal therefore ignores potential issues at 99% of depository institutions. As a governmental agency, shouldn't the bureau provide the best data available, rather than just any data?

We firmly believe consumers should be able to make informed decisions about their personal finances. From buying a dream home to sending a child to college or investing in a promising small business, each consumer's goals are different.

In order for consumers to make these decisions, they need information that is accurate and reliable. We hope the CFPB, as the governing federal agency for this industry, will take measures to achieve this goal. As I learned from March Madness brackets, it is time to shut out the background noise and focus on the facts.

About CBA
The Consumer Bankers Association (CBA) is the trade association for today's leaders in retail banking - banking services geared toward consumers and small businesses. The nation's largest financial institutions, as well as many regional banks, are CBA corporate members, collectively holding two-thirds of the industry's total assets. CBA’s mission is to preserve and promote the retail banking industry as it strives to fulfill the financial needs of the American consumer and small business.