Plan to disclose credit card complaints faces opposition

by Gregory Korte, USA Today

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed website would allow credit card shoppers to search by company to see what kinds of complaints other customers have. The idea, first floated in December, would allow the public to "get that information when it’s most pertinent and convenient for them."

The card issuers say there’s no assurance that the complaints aren’t frivolous ‘ or even that the person complaining is an actual customer.

"Until somebody has had a chance to sort though it and figure out what’s valid and invalid, it’s a gossip column," said Carol Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.  "It might as well be Yelp," she said, referring to a website that allows anyone to post positive or negative comments on neighborhood businesses.

The posting of complaints online isn’t unprecedented for a federal agency. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allows car buyers to search complaints by make and model. The Consumer Product Safety Commission allows consumers to search 8,576 product safety complaints.

The posting of credit card complaints could set a precedent for how other financial services complaints are handled ‘ which is one reason why credit unions in Ohio, Missouri, Alaska and elsewhere oppose the website.

One issue is whether the bureau should publish the "narrative" ‘ the consumer’s open-ended description of the problem. Consumer groups say those data are essential to understanding the complaint ‘ but they could also contain sensitive information that can’t be released.

Consumer advocates say those hurdles aren’t insurmountable. "Some of this data is sensitive, more so than ‘My toaster caught fire,’ " said Gavin Baker, who works on on transparency issues for the non-profit group OMB Watch. "I think it requires more thought, but it’s completely doable."

The agency could, for example, allow people filing complaints to put sensitive information in a separate field. Computer programs could be written to search for patterns that look like names, phone numbers or Social Security numbers and delete them.

Baker said the bureau has more motivation than anyone to get it right. A final design for the website could come this summer.

"The political context here is that they’re already in the cross hairs," Baker said. "If they forget to tie their shoelaces, they’re going to be dragged in front of Congress to explain themselves. And that applies to this database, as well as everything they do. They know they’re living in a fishbowl."