Fighting with your bank over unexpected fees? In a dispute with your auto lender or credit card company over a change in your interest rate?

In most cases consumers are forced to settle the dispute in arbitration, an out-of-court procedure that often favors deep-pocketed companies and usually can’t be appealed. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finalized a new rule this week making it easier for consumers to join class-action lawsuits to fight alleged wrongdoing by financial institutions. But the regulation isn’t retroactive, so most consumers are stuck with the arbitration requirement they agreed to in their original service contract.  

But there are ways to make arbitration work for you. The key is understanding how the system functions and how you can use it to your advantage against the financial provider. 

Here’s a rundown of the options:

What to Do First

Before you consider arbitration, there are free and easy ways that might help you settle a dispute with your financial provider.

Complain to the CFPB. Register your complaint in the CFPB’s free Consumer Complaint Database (or call 855-411-2372). You fill in a form and a CFPB representative transmits your concern to the company.

You’ll usually get a response from the company within 15 days, the bureau says. The CFPB has returned millions of dollars in relief to consumers in the past five years through database complaints. 

There’s one drawback: Any decision is final. There’s no way to appeal through the CFPB’s complaint process if you’re unhappy with the company’s response, a spokesman told us.

Report the problem to the Better Business Bureau. Check where the company is headquartered, and register your complaint with the BBB’s office there. BBB representatives will follow up to help resolve the issue, or at least to get a response from the company.

You can usually expect a response within 35 days of your original complaint.

Next Step: Consult a Consumer Attorney

If the free methods don’t work, consult with a consumer attorney to see whether your case is worth going to arbitration.  

“To do arbitration you really need to have at least a couple hundred dollars worth of damages,” says Stacy Bardo, a consumer attorney based in Chicago.

You can find an attorney through the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a professional organization. When the search results in a selection of local attorneys, you may want to call more than one to identify his or her specialty. 

Dan Blinn, principal at the Consumer Law Group in Rocky Hill, Conn., for instance, concentrates on disputes between consumers and auto dealer fraud and conflicts related to auto financing. “There aren’t a lot of lawyers who handle these cases,” he says. 

Blinn says he doesn’t charge a fee for the client’s first visit. But he warns that not every case is worth his while. The best candidates involve violations of laws that allow for fee-shifting—that is, if the company you’re up against loses in arbitration, it must pay reasonable fees to your attorney. 

Blinn says he steers clear of cases involving credit card or mobile-phone overcharges.

“Usually there are very small amounts involved, $20 or less,” he explains. “If you have a million people charged $5, that’s a $5 million case in class action. But to go into arbitration to recover that $5 for one person isn’t worthwhile for the consumer or the lawyers.” 

You also could try to file a personal lawsuit because class-action suits are generally prohibited. But that can be difficult, too. “If there’s a binding arbitration clause and any party to the contract says they want to arbitrate, the court is required to do it,” Blinn says. 

In some cases the company may agree to settle.

“That can happen if the defendant doesn’t want to pay the arbitration fees,” Blinn notes. “Sometimes when there’s an insurance-funded defense, the insurance company will prefer you to go to court. Insurance companies don’t like arbitration because you can’t appeal. And arbitrators can make mistakes.”

Consider Alternatives

If a lawyer won’t take your case, you can pursue other options, some of which may lead to getting your money back. In other instances, you may merely get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve shamed the company or forewarned other consumers of the company’s faults. 

• Go to small-claims court. Typically you can sue only for monetary damages, but in some cases you can be awarded damages for emotional distress and inconvenience as well. The cost to file a suit varies by jurisdiction. In Connecticut, for instance, the filing cost is $95. The court considers cases valued up to $5,000.

• Report the problem to your state attorney general. Most AG offices have consumer-fraud divisions. “I’ve seen a few instances where state attorneys general will help individual consumers with cases,” says Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a not-for-profit consumer advocacy organization. “Most state AGs have very limited staff, but this is a smart thing to try.” 

Typically, though, the state attorney general’s office won’t pursue your particular situation. Instead, they’ll include your complaint in their databases of complaints against a particular company or industry, for the public to review. States also pursue legal actions against financial companies when enough consumers complain. 

• Complain to a state regulator. Banking, insurance, and other state regulators may have consumer divisions to address your issue.

• Go public. Posting or commenting on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and other channels are another way to shame companies and sometimes create change. If your local television news station has a consumer reporter, he or she may investigate and help you get a resolution. You also can submit a tip on the home page of Consumerist, Consumer Reports' sister website; editors may follow up. Remember not to post account numbers or give out personal information.

Bardo notes that going those routes probably won't result in your getting an economic windfall. “But eventually if there’s enough pressure, the company may take action," she says.