How to complain and get results with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Your complaints help it to create consumer protections for financial products and services

Published: July 21, 2015 11:45 AM

When Harry of Hull, Mass., learned that his son Ari, a soldier about to be deployed to Iraq, was struggling with a predatory auto loan that was targeted to service members, he knew just what to do. He wrote to the Consumer Financial Protection BureauHarry's complaint (the CFPB would not give us his last name) launched an investigation that uncovered deceptive practices by U.S. Bank and one of its nonbank partners, Dealers' Financial Services, in selling subprime auto loans to active-duty service members. As a result, U.S. Bank and DFS were ordered to return more than $5.5 million to those affected. "It's great to have someone in our corner," Ari said.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opened for business four years ago as the nation's first federal agency specifically mandated to protect American consumers in the financial marketplace. Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, fought for it. The agency writes and enforces rules for financial institutions and maintains a website where consumers can make inquiries and file complaints.

Since the first complaint was registered on July 21, 2011, the bureau has handled more than 600,000 of them regarding financial products and services, from mortgages and credit cards to student loans, auto loans, bank accounts, debt collection, payday loans, prepaid cards, and credit reporting. Its enforcement activity has resulted in more than $10.1 billion in relief for over 17 million consumers. Yet many consumers still don't know about the CFPB or how it can help them.

For more information on how to complain about products and services read, "Speak Up to Resolve Complaints."

Here’s how it works for you:

File a complaint. To begin, consumers can submit a complaint on the agency’s website in English or by phone (855-411-2372) in more than 180 languages. You can also write a letter or send a fax. Ultimately, each complaint is assigned a case number and put into the Consumer Complaint Database, a searchable resource available to the public and updated nightly. 

To make the process easier, the website breaks down the complaint universe into categories, such as debt collection, mortgages, and auto loans. Say you want to complain about a debt collection. An online form at Ask CFPB will ask you to describe the type of debt (credit card, for example), explain what prompted the complaint (for example, harassing communications), and describe what a satisfactory resolution might be. you're encouraged to upload supporting documents. A live-chat function connects you with a CFPB staffer if you have questions. 

After you submit your complaint and you’re issued a tracking number, the complaint is forwarded to the company. It has 15 days to respond and up to 60 days to provide a final response. For example, on May 18, a consumer in the New York ZIP code of 11374 submitted a complaint that Stella Recovery Inc. insisted on attempting to collect payment even though “the debt is not mine.” The complaint was forwarded to the company the same day; it responded promptly and the case was closed with an explanation. If the consumer disputes the response, the case might be referred to the CFPB’s enforcement division for further investigation.

Read about existing complaints. The database also helps consumers who want to prevent problems. Say you want to establish a relationship with a bank. Type in your location to see all of the complaints filed about the banks in your area. Or, if you have a specific bank in mind, use the database to check its reputation. In addition, the CFPB just launched a monthly consumer complaint report series that includes a list of the most-complained-about companies. Each month will spotlight a particular industry, starting with debt collection. 

Help others. A shortcoming in the complaint database had been the lack of detail. That’s been remedied with a function that allows consumers to include narrative descriptions of their complaint. That will give people the opportunity to add context. If you elect to permit the CFPB to publish your story on its website—it will be scrubbed of personal identifying details—others can learn from your experience.

If they wish, companies can respond to the complaint from a set list of response categories. In addition, a separate “Tell Your Story” website feature invites consumers to share their experiences—good or bad— privately with the CFPB. The stories won’t be published, but they will indicate trouble spots that warrant a closer look from the bureau.

“Consumers should know they have a voice,” says Darian Dorsey, chief of staff in the agency's Office of Consumer Response, adding that they will become "part of the public discussion."

Catherine Fredman

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