John Lukach, who graduated recently from the University of Minnesota, accrued $138,000 in student debt earning his master’s degree in social work. 

Facing payments of $765 per month, the 25-year-old says he tried for seven months to reach Navient, his student-loan servicer, to ask for help extending his loans or to make other accommodations. When he called, representatives either told him they could do nothing or promised to mail forms so that he could apply for help, but the forms would take months to arrive. 

“It was exhausting,” says Lukach, who on his own never got the help he needed.

That changed after Lukach learned about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through an online student-debt forum. He filed a complaint with the agency’s Consumer Complaint Database, and two days later received a direct call from a Navient “consumer ambassador” who explained several payment options.

The details are still being worked out, but Lukach now anticipates that he’ll save “a couple hundred dollars” each month on his loans.

“I’m much more confident now that I will be able to negotiate terms with the weight of the CFPB behind me,” he says.

Recently, though, the bureau has been under attack—from bills proposed in Congress to defang it to a court hearing May 24 over whether the bureau’s structure is unconstitutional because it limits presidential power. The 11 judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., heard arguments and are now deliberating.

Under the current structure, the bureau director is appointed for a five-year term and can be fired by the president only for “cause,” meaning incompetence or malfeasance.

Some critics of the bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, say that limiting the president’s hiring and firing power is unconstitutional and that the bureau should be run by an appointed commission or scrapped altogether. 

Consumers Union, the mobilization and policy arm of Consumer Reports, opposes a commission structure, saying it would lead to gridlock and inaction and would be less accountable than a single director.

The CFPB has often successfully worked on behalf of consumers to resolve unfair practices that can often save them money.

Here are five ways the bureau has acted on behalf of consumers:

1. Returning Money to Consumers Wrongly Charged

All told, the CFPB has returned almost $12 billion to consumers wronged by banks, credit card companies, mortgage servicers, and other financial-service companies.

Late last year, for example, the agency ordered Wells Fargo to pay $185 million in refunds and penalties for regularly misusing customers’ personal information to open almost 2 million fraudulent accounts in their names. It also ordered the bank to pay full restitution to all affected customers.

Consumers get their money back in a variety of ways, says CFPB spokesman Samuel Gilford. “Sometimes a company is ordered to distribute funds directly to consumers through, say, a credit on their credit card statement or a check in the mail,” he says. “In other cases consumers get payments from the bureau itself.” 

Gilford says that the CFPB has also ordered companies to offer consumers principal reductions on a mortgage balance or to stop collecting on outstanding debt. Civil penalties are distributed to consumers from a dedicated Civil Penalty Fund.

Often the agency finds out about these fraudulent or unethical acts by analyzing patterns of complaints logged in its Consumer Complaint Database. If, for instance, you’ve been wronged by a credit card lender and haven’t been able to get redress on your own, you can file a complaint in the database. The CFPB vets the complaint and registers it with the financial institution. Typically you’ll get a response from the company within 15 days, the agency says. 

2. Helping Consumers Find the Best Bank for Their Needs

The CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database serves another useful purpose. Because consumer comments and complaints are captured verbatim—and are viewable by anyone—you can get a sense of those banks, credit unions, credit card companies, and other institutions that are causing consumers the most problems. 

Banks and other financial institutions have expressed concern that the system allows consumers to report complaints anonymously and that the CFPB doesn’t fully vet the complaints for accuracy. But proponents of the database say that consumers like Lukach typically submit their complaints to the CFPB only after they’ve given up trying to get help from the institutions themselves.

3. Providing Tools to Get the Best Loans

The CFPB also makes available “Know Before You Owe” shopping sheets and online tools to help consumers of mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and auto loans make informed choices and avoid costly surprises. Students can compare loan packages from up to three schools at once on the CFPB’s financial-aid comparison page. The agency also has a tool to help students like Lukach know their best loan-payment options. 

Mortgage borrowers can also better compare the loans and terms they’re being offered, thanks to standardized loan estimate and closing disclosure forms the CFPB created and now requires lenders to use.

In the past, that job was more difficult because lenders didn’t have to show their numbers the same way. Differences that might not easily be discernable to consumers are now easier to see. A difference of just a quarter of a percentage point in a $100,000 mortgage can mean more than $5,000 extra in interest over a 30-year term.

4. Ensuring that Prepaid Cards Are Cheaper and Better

Last year the CFPB adopted new rules that require better fee disclosures for prepaid cards. That can help consumers find the best and least costly option. Issuers of those cards also now must offer the same strong protections that limit a consumer’s financial liability that come with traditional debit and credit cards. (Recently the Prepaid Card Rule withstood repeal by Congress.)

5. Protecting Seniors From Scams and Costly Mistakes

The CFPB has also come to the rescue of senior citizens. Financial elder exploitation is conservatively estimated to cost families $3 billion per year. In many cases the exploiter—a family member, friend, confidant, or caregiver, for instance—knows what they’re doing is wrong. But there are cases where someone just doesn’t know that taking money from a senior’s account to pay for certain expenses isn’t legitimate. 

So the CFPB has initiated numerous consumer education programs for different populations to help ensure that their money doesn’t become the subject of fraud. Its Managing Someone Else’s Money guides are written for people holding power of attorney; trustees; court-appointed guardians; and others who manage the accounts of children, the elderly, and disabled people. The guides are also useful for family members who want to ensure that an attorney, financial adviser, or other professional is doing right by the vulnerable person they’re paid to protect.

The CFPB also monitors lending of reverse mortgages, which people 62 and older can take out against the equity in their homes to help cover expenses. Last December, the CFPB fined American Advisors Group, Reverse Mortgage Solutions, and Aegean Financial for deceptive advertisements that tricked seniors who applied for reverse mortgages into believing they could not lose their homes with a reverse mortgage. Seniors can lose—and have lost—their homes under certain circumstances, with dire consequences.