Why Process Complaints? Then and Now
53 Pages Posted: 6 Jan 2016
Date Written: December 15, 2015
The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) established the first comprehensive federal forum for processing consumer complaints about financial products and services. The CFPB not only handles consumers complaints; it also publishes a database that includes most complaints and their initial resolutions. For a symposium honoring the scholarship of Professor William C. Whitford, I analyze the CFPB’s complaint system and database using a framework he developed to explore the reasons why government agencies process consumer complaints and whether these reasons justify the resources that complaint processing entails. Whitford and his co-author proposed three “obvious” reasons to process consumer complaints: to settle consumer disputes; to inform the agency’s regulatory activities; and to generate good will for the agency among constituencies such as consumers, government actors, and the companies the CFPB regulates.
I find that the CFPB has mixed success in providing an alternative dispute resolution forum for consumers. I am, however, missing key information for this evaluation. The CFPB Consumer Complaint Database contains the financial institutions’ responses to consumer complaints but there is almost no information available about any follow up actions the CFPB takes. The CFPB is particularly strong on the regulatory function. It makes significant use of complaint data in its regulatory roles and evinces a commitment to ensuring that companies are handling complaints well. Last comes good will. With respect to public good will, I was unable to find much evidence one way or the other. As for good will among government actors, the CFPB appropriately appears not to apply different treatment to complaints referred by government entities or officials. Finally, the CFPB’s complaint data reveal an intriguing possibility that the process may provide some legitimization of financial institutions' complaint resolutions. But given that consumer financial companies are pushing for the CFPB’s elimination, working to generate good will among financial institutions in this way may be entirely reasonable on the CFPB’s part. This is especially true because the CFPB has made important complaints decisions – such as publishing the database without redacting company names – despite financial companies’ vociferous objections.
Keywords: CFPB, complaints, consumer protection, consumer credit, consumer financial services, consumer law, commercial law
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