Not far from Lake Moultrie in Berkeley County, someone took the time this month to log a formal complaint about a credit-card issuer.
In the process, this anonymous individual unknowingly became a statistical footnote in the government’s push to shed more light on a cornerstone of the lending business.
The local grievance was among the first 150 or so from around the country to be disclosed publicly by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last week. The agency released the mostly anonymous complaints Tuesday when it unveiled a public database that will both tally the volume of credit-card gripes by issuer and document how each dispute was resolved.
Previously, this information was kept private.
“By making our data publicly available, initially in the area of credit cards, we hope to improve the transparency and efficiency of this essential consumer market,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.
Consumers can search the site in several ways: by issuer; by type of complaint; by ZIP code. No personal information about customers is released, and the disclosed content is terse and vague.
Cordray’s agency began amassing complaints list last July. The methodology has since changed, and for now the database is limited to filings since June 1 against lenders with more than $10 billion in assets. It will likely be expanded to include the roughly 46,000 complaints the bureau received before that date.
Dirty laundryThe consumer bureau was officially established about a year ago by the Obama administration in response to the 2008 financial meltdown and ensuing crackdown on the banking industry.
It isn’t breaking new ground with its online credit-card watchdog. Other federal agencies, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, have offered searchable buyer-beware databases to the public for years.
The lending business isn’t thrilled about having its dirty laundry aired in the sunlight. The American Bankers Association, which represents many major card issuers, noted that of the 383 million account holders, less than one-hundredth of 1 percent have filed a complaint.
Kenneth Clayton, executive vice president of legislative affairs and chief counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said the government’s plan to expand the database “is disappointing and could mislead consumers.”
Obviously a seasoned attorney who’s perused his share of lawsuits, Clayton goes on to make a valid point.
“Publishing allegations is often different than publishing facts,” he said.
More to comeConsumer advocates, naturally, take the opposite tack. They believe a publicly accessible online clearinghouse will make the business more accountable without affecting reputable companies.
“If credit-card issuers improve their practices and the way that they respond when customers contact them about problems, customers will be happier with their services and less likely to complain to the CFPB,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.
The bureau said it forwards all suitable complaints to issuers for review. Companies have 15 days to respond, and most issues are expected to be settled and closed within 60 days. Borrowers can track the progress of their complaints and dispute the resolution.
The practical benefits of the database are murkier for shoppers who pull out the plastic prudently and pay off their balances monthly. Michaele Pena, director of consumer credit counseling at the nonprofit Family Services Inc. in North Charleston, sees it as a potentially useful tool for someone who’s shopping for a credit card.
“It may be quick reference for some consumers to look at,” Pena said.
Charleston area’s first official entry in the credit-card company database was filed June 1 and forwarded to Bank of America the next day. His or her residence was identified only by Bonneau’s ZIP code: 29431. The complaint had to do with the interest rate. The issue was resolved “with explanation,” according to the database.
Case closed perhaps, but that hardly marks the end of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Now that it’s launched its credit-card database, the agency is aiming to police other commonplace lending transactions, namely home mortgages and private student loans.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.
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