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How Consumers Use the CFPB's Complaint Function

posted by Pamela Foohey

I recently posted to SSRN my new article, Calling on the CFPB for Help: Telling Stories and Consumer Protection (Law & Contemporary Problems, forthcoming 2017). In the article, I survey a random sample of consumers' narratives detailing their complaints about consumer credit and financial service providers, with the goal of assessing how people engage with the complaint function in light of how the CFPB processes complaints. In short, consumers submit complaints via the CFPB's website and by phone, the CFPB forwards the complaints to companies, and the companies are required to respond. That the CFPB does not respond to complaints in the first instance may come as a surprise to some consumers, despite the CFPB's websites’ prominent statements about where it sends complaints. Importantly, the CFPB is not the only federal or state agency that maintains a complaint function. The DOJ, FTC, and other agencies similarly take complaints from constituents, and likewise often do not respond directly to the complaining individuals. Identifying when and how people are not understanding how their complaints will be processed may provide agencies an opportunity to further help constituents and to augment how they meet their goals.

In brief, I find that people mainly use the CFPB's narrative space in two ways: to express their anger and frustration about a company’s practice, or to express sadness and fear about how a company’s practice has impacted their lives, such as their ability to afford food and housing. When people write with anger and frustration, they tend to raise specific legal claims, thank the CFPB for its work generally, or ask the CFPB to investigate the company’s practices. This aligns with how the CFPB processes and uses the complaints. In contrast, when people write with sadness and fear, they are likely to plead with the CFPB for help on an individualized basis. However, the CFPB is not equipped to help people on the personalized basis that these narratives request, and such is not the goal of the complaint mechanism. But if the CFPB does not respond to people who seem to desperately seek a response, the CFPB may lose public buy-in, and these people may continue to suffer, particularly if they do not seek assistance elsewhere because they think the CFPB will help them. Similar may be true across government agencies with complaint functions.

The narratives offer a way for the CFPB (and other agencies) to identify and help the individuals who are using the complaint function to ask for individualized assistance. The narratives pleading for help were relatively easy to pinpoint. Agencies can employ text analysis tools to identify these individuals and respond to them in customizable ways. For instance, once identified, the CFPB can send the complainant one of several prepared responses that clarifies its role and lists social service and nonprofit organizations as well as websites that the complainant may turn to for additional assistance. 

Overall, the majority of consumers use the complaint function in the way broadly envisioned by the CFPB and its enacting statute. Though people who write about their problems with sadness and fear particularly may take solace in having a space to voice the ramifications of their financial issues on their lives, that many of them also plead with the CFPB for help presents an opportunity for the CFPB to enhance how they assist consumers. Perhaps more importantly, understanding how consumers use the CFPB's complaint function suggests that other agencies' databases may contain identifiable subsets of people expressing serious issues in their lives. As highlighted in the Article's conclusion, agencies across the country should explore their complaint databases with the results of the Article's analysis in mind.

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