Ed's Blog

We urge CFPB to add stories to complaint database

By Ed Mierzwinski
Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program

While Congress gets the bulk of the news, a lot of the work in Washington is done by agencies writing rules or enforcing laws. The rulemaking process is a contentious battle, where powerful special interests mobilize thousands of lawyers and PR flacks to delay or kill efforts to make markets work or preserve consumer, worker or community health and safety. So, we fight back. Yesterday, we urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to add consumer stories to its Public Consumer Complaint Database. We've also recently urged other agencies to take action. The most important of these requests include our comments asking the DOT to expand airline passenger rights and the FCC to protect a free and open Internet.

As we have previously explained, the CFPB's Public Consumer Complaint Database is one of the new agency's most important activities to help make the financial marketplace work better. Of course, banks, debt collectors, payday lenders and other firms criticized it when it was proposed by the bureau nearly three years ago; now, led by Wall Street's Financial Services Roundtable, they're vigorously opposing the proposed expansion of the database to include consumer narratives (stories). Of course, their opposition does not necessarily involve the use of actual facts, as we also noted in the Huffington Post. Further, it turns out that when the FSR's lobbyists and flacks launched their social media campaign against the CFPB, they even got ahead of FSR's bank members, as Bloomberg Business Week explained.

You can soon read all the comments to CFPB here at the Regulations.gov portal (so far, only 88 of 115 detailed comments, including ours, have been posted, with more added daily).

In our view, the addition of stories to the database is so important that we not only joined a comment signed by 49 members of Americans for Financial Reform, we also wrote an even more detailed comment from U.S. PIRG and state PIRGs based on our five reports analyzing database complaints in the bank account, credit card, credit report, debt collection and student loan markets.

We also urged nearly 10,000 PIRG members to send additional short comments to the CFPB. Several other leading consumer groups also asked for comments from their members.

We've also filed comments in several other recent proceedings by CFPB and other regulators. Here are summaries of a few of the most important:

Net Neutrality, Media Concentration and an Open Internet: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the middle of at least two critical rulemakings. We recently joined a petition opposing the merger of the cable/Internet Service Provider (ISP) behemoths Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Just last week, we filed detailed comments urging the FCC to preserve net neutrality by not allowing ISPs to set up fast and slow lanes on the Internet. New and innovative firms as well as minority but important cultural or civic viewpoints would always be in the slow lane, we argued, meaning already-powerful firms and voices would always dominate discourse and drive commerce on what is our public commons.

Over 11,000 PIRG members also filed their own comments in favor of net neutrality and an open Internet. So did nearly all of an unprecedented 3.7 million comments (NPR story) filed to this somewhat obscure agency that regulates a vast swath of our telecommunications and digital economy and usually only hears from, at most, a few dozen to a few hundred telecom and digital firms and their attorneys.

Ensuring Full Disclosure of Airline Passenger Fees: It is critical that airline consumers get all the information about the various fees and charges increasingly added on to their base fares, no matter whether they shop at an airline website or an online fare site or any other way. This month, we joined Consumers Union in a comment to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on "Ancillary Fees."

Mobile Financial Services: The CFPB is also investigating the need for increased consumer protections in the growing mobile financial services marketplace, which includes a variety of mobile apps and the ability to pay using your mobile phone as what is being called a "mobile wallet." Along with the Center for Digital Democracy, we urged the CFPB not only to extend traditional consumer protections to new payment methods, but to develop a "a comprehensive set of principles and safeguards for the overall digital marketplace." In our view, "mobile wallets" and mobile tracking systems change the entire marketplace in ways that the old laws may not adequately consider.

Excerpt from the comment: "Contemporary mobile practices that take advantage of the powerful capabilities of personalized and pervasive digital marketing raise questions about whether at-risk consumers will be assisted in the long term. The array of tools and techniques that is already available to target (“monetize”) economically vulnerable consumers more effectively could—unless addressed by the agency now—undermine and erode their ability to enhance their financial security."

I also discuss some related online marketplace threats, including the use of lead generation and real-time bidding by online payday lenders and for-profits schools, in a previous blog on recent CFPB and FTC regulatory actions against fraudulent online payday lenders that made purported (fake) loans to consumers, solely to gain access to their bank accounts so they could make illegal biweekly withdrawals "indefinitely."

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