[Federal Register Volume 78, Number 69 (Wednesday, April 10, 2013)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 21218-21226]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2013-07569]


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BUREAU OF CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION

12 CFR Chapter X

[Docket No. CFPB-2012-0023]


Disclosure of Consumer Complaint Data

AGENCY: Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

ACTION: Final Policy Statement.

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SUMMARY: The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (Bureau) is 
issuing a final policy statement (Policy Statement) to provide guidance 
on how the Bureau plans to exercise its discretion to publicly disclose 
certain consumer complaint data that do not include personally 
identifiable information. The Bureau receives complaints from consumers 
under the terms of Title X of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and 
Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). The Policy Statement also 
identifies additional ways that the Bureau may disclose consumer 
complaint data but as to

[[Page 21219]]

which it will conduct further study before finalizing its position.

DATES: This Policy Statement is effective on March 25, 2013.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Scott Pluta, Office of Consumer 
Response, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, at (202) 435-7306.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

I. Overview

A. Final Policy Statement

    Under the final Policy Statement,\1\ the Bureau extends its 
existing practices of disclosing data associated with consumer 
complaints about credit cards.\2\ The Bureau plans to add to its 
consumer complaint public database--which contains certain fields for 
each unique \3\ complaint \4\--complaints about other types of consumer 
financial products and services. The Bureau plans to continue the 
issuance of its own periodic reports about complaint data. To date, the 
Bureau has issued eight such reports.\5\ The public database will 
include data from certain consumer complaints submitted on or after 
December 1, 2011.\6\ These disclosures are intended to help provide 
consumers with ``timely and understandable information to make 
responsible decisions about financial transactions'' and to ensure that 
markets for consumer financial products and services ``operate 
transparently and efficiently.'' \7\
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    \1\ The Bureau has issued several policy statements and requests 
for comment regarding its disclosure of consumer complaint data. 
These are: Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data (Notice 
of proposed policy statement with request for comment), 76 FR 76628 
(Dec. 8, 2011) (Proposed Credit Card Complaint Data Disclosure 
Policy Statement); Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data 
(Notice of final policy statement), 77 FR 37558 (June 22, 2012) 
(Final Credit Card Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement); and 
Disclosure of Consumer Complaint Data (Notice of proposed policy 
statement), 77 FR 37616 (June 22, 2012) (Proposed Complaint Data 
Disclosure Policy Statement).
    \2\ The existing practices are described in the Final Credit 
Card Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement. To the extent there 
is any conflict between this Policy Statement and the Final Credit 
Card Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement, this Policy 
Statement controls.
    \3\ The database will not include duplicative complaints 
submitted by the same consumer.
    \4\ The Policy Statement concerns the Bureau's authority to make 
public certain consumer complaint data that it has decided to 
include in the public database in its discretion. The Policy 
Statement does not address the Bureau's authority or obligation to 
disclose additional complaint data pursuant to a request made under 
the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 522.
    \5\ These are: Annual Report of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman 
(October 16, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201210_cfpb_Student-Loan-Ombudsman-Annual-Report.pdf; Consumer Response: A 
Snapshot of Complaints Received (October 10, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201210_cfpb_consumer_response_september-30-snapshot.pdf; Annual Report of the Consumer Financial 
Protection Bureau Pursuant to Section 1017(e)(4) of the Dodd-Frank 
Act (July 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201207_cfpb_report_annual-to-house-appropriations-committee.pdf; Semi-Annual 
Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: January 1-June 
30, 2012 (July, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201207_cfpb_Semi-Annual_Report.pdf; Consumer Response: A Snapshot of 
Complaints Received (June 19, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201206_cfpb_shapshot_complaints-received.pdf; Consumer Response Annual Report: July 21-December 31, 
2011 (March 31, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201204_cfpb_ConsumerResponseAnnualReport.pdf; Semi-Annual Report of the 
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: July 21-December 31, 2011 
(January 30, 2012) at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/2012/01/Congressional_Report_Jan2012.pdf; and Consumer Response Interim 
report on CFPB's credit card complaint data (November 30, 2011) at 
http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/reports/CFPB%20Consumer%20Response%20Interim%20Report%20on%20Credit%20Card%20Complaint%20Data.pdf.
    \6\ Credit card complaint data will be included from December 1, 
2011. Mortgage complaint data likewise will be included from 
December 1, 2011, the date the Bureau began accepting such 
complaints. Complaint data on bank accounts and services, private 
student loans, and other consumer loans will be included from March 
1, 2012, the date the Bureau began accepting these types of 
complaints. The database will not include complaints received by the 
Bureau prior to the dates it began accepting those types of 
complaints.
    \7\ 12 U.S.C. 5511(b)(1) & (5).
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II. Background

A. Complaint System

    In its Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement, the 
Bureau generally described how the Office of Consumer Response 
(``Consumer Response'') accepts and processes consumer complaints 
(collectively the ``Complaint System'').\8\ That system has been 
refined over time, but its core processes remain the same.\9\
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    \8\ Disclosure of Consumer Complaint Data (Notice of proposed 
policy statement), 77 FR 37616, 37617 (June 22, 2012).
    \9\ Complaints may also be subject to further investigation by 
Consumer Response or follow-up by other parts of the Bureau. The 
Complaint System is described in more detail in a number of Bureau 
reports, including the Consumer Response Annual Report for 2011 
(March 31, 2012) at: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201204_cfpb_ConsumerResponseAnnualReport.pdf.
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B. Overview of Public Comments

    In its Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement, the 
Bureau proposed to extend its existing disclosure practices described 
in the Final Credit Card Data Disclosure Policy Statement to apply to 
other complaint data. The Bureau noted that the basic structure of the 
credit card data disclosure policy, including the public database, 
could be duplicated for other consumer products and services in 
addition to credit cards. The Bureau also observed that the purposes 
underlying the Final Credit Card Data Disclosure Policy Statement would 
apply to this extension, and the legal authority to disclose the data 
in the public database and in the Bureau's own reporting is likewise 
the same.
    The Bureau received 26 unique sets of comments in response to its 
Notice of Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement. Fifteen 
industry groups submitted letters. One financial reform coalition 
submitted a single set of comments on behalf of 22 consumer, civil 
rights, privacy, and government groups. One mortgage provider, a 
financial services provider, and an online social network submitted 
comments. Finally, five consumers submitted comments.
    Almost all comments concerned expansion of the public database 
component of the Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement. 
Many of these comments generally reiterated comments submitted in 
response to the Proposed Credit Card Complaint Disclosure Policy 
Statement. Industry commenters generally opposed the inclusion of 
additional complaint data in the public database, and reiterated 
opposition to the database itself. Although they endorsed the intended 
goals of the public database, many industry commenters asserted that 
the database would confuse consumers and unfairly damage the reputation 
of companies. Several trade associations commented that the database is 
contrary to the Bureau's mission to help consumers and to promote the 
transparency and efficiency of markets for consumer financial products 
and services. Some commenters specifically noted their support for the 
Bureau's work to help educate consumers through supplying timely and 
comprehensive information to make informed decisions about their 
financial transactions and the companies they choose to work with, but 
stated that complaints are best handled by the parties themselves.
    The disclosure of company names in the public database was a 
particular focus of these comments, as was normalization or the use of 
some metric to provide context for data--by, for example, including 
information on the number of accounts a company has for each particular 
product or service. Some industry commenters reiterated comments that 
the Bureau lacks legal authority to disclose individual-level complaint 
data. One commenter reiterated opposition to the database and 
disclosure of any complaint data, asserting that Congress intended the 
complaint function to ensure that the Bureau has knowledge of the 
consumer

[[Page 21220]]

financial markets, not the public generally.
    Consumer groups and consumers endorsed the goals underlying the 
public database proposal. The submission from the financial reform 
coalition on behalf of 22 consumer, civil rights, privacy, and 
government groups supported the existence and expansion of the public 
database, citing the data publication as a public service and a way to 
fulfill the Bureau's affirmative disclosure requirements under FOIA. 
Those groups also urged the Bureau to publicly disclose consumers' 
narratives and companies' response narratives. Other groups commented 
that the Bureau should carefully weigh privacy concerns associated with 
expanding the fields disclosed.
    Many submissions included comments directed to the Bureau's method 
of processing consumer complaints, i.e., the Complaint System. To the 
extent that these comments also relate to the final Policy Statement, 
the Bureau addresses them below. To the extent that they relate only to 
the Complaint System and not to any associated impact on disclosure, 
the Bureau does not address them in this final Policy Statement. In 
response to such feedback, however, Consumer Response has and will 
continue to refine and improve its Complaint System over time.\10\
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    \10\ Consumer Response already maintains several feedback 
mechanisms for participants in the Complaint System and has plans to 
expand its feedback and customer satisfaction channels.
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III. Summary of Comments Received, Bureau Response, and Resulting 
Policy Statement Changes

    This section provides a summary of the comments received by subject 
matter. It also summarizes the Bureau's assessment of the comments by 
subject matter and, where applicable, describes the resulting changes 
that the Bureau is making in the final Policy Statement. All such 
changes concern the public database. There are no changes to the policy 
regarding the Bureau's issuance of its own complaint data reports.

A. The Policy Statement Process

    Several trade associations commented that, each time the Bureau 
intends to add complaints to the public database about a certain type 
of consumer financial product or service, it should provide the 
opportunity to comment prior to doing so.
    Consumer Response already maintains several feedback mechanisms for 
stakeholders, and has conducted specific outreach to companies, 
consumer groups, and trade associations to obtain feedback prior to 
beginning to accept new types of complaints (and therefore before 
inclusion in the public database). One trade association noted its 
support of the Bureau's feedback process and engagement with regulated 
entities. The Bureau will also delay publication of complaints about 
categories of products or services other than those immediately subject 
to this policy \11\ until a reasonable period of time has lapsed in 
order to evaluate the data and consider whether any product- or 
service-specific policy changes are warranted.
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    \11\ See note 6, supra.
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    The Bureau is committed to transparency and robust engagement with 
the public regarding its actions. Although not required by law to do 
so, the Bureau solicited and received public comment on the Proposed 
Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement. The Bureau received 
substantial public feedback expressing a range of viewpoints, and it 
has carefully considered the comments received, as described in detail 
below including comments specific to the expansion of the database to 
particular consumer financial markets. As stated in the final Policy 
Statement, the Bureau plans to study the effectiveness of its policy on 
an ongoing basis, and plans to continue to engage with the public, 
including regulated entities, as it assesses the efficacy of its 
complaint disclosure policy.\12\
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    \12\ The Project On Government Oversight highlighted the 
Bureau's collaborative work to engage the public in policymaking in 
its recent report entitled Highlighted Best Practices for Openness 
and Accountability, featuring the Bureau as a noteworthy model that 
could be replicated government-wide.
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B. Legal Authority for Public Database

    In its Final Credit Card Data Disclosure Policy Statement, the 
Bureau addressed in detail several arguments related to the Bureau's 
authority to establish a public database. Several comments in response 
to the Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement implicate 
the same arguments concerning the Bureau's legal authority. For 
example, several trade associations reiterated claims that the public 
database and individual-level complaint data disclosure are 
inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Trade 
Secrets Act. A financial reform organization and 22 consumer groups, 
civil rights, privacy, and government groups specifically noted their 
disagreement with those comments and asserted that the Bureau not only 
has the authority but also may have an obligation to create the public 
database in order to meet its affirmative disclosure requirements under 
FOIA and the Bureau's own regulations. The Bureau stands by its 
previous statements and analysis on this issue.\13\
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    \13\ Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data (Notice of 
final policy statement), 77 FR 37558, supra at 37560-37561 (June 22, 
2012).
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C. The Impact of the Public Database on Consumers

    Comments from consumer groups, privacy groups, and consumers 
contended that the public database empowers consumers to better 
understand and detect instances of unfair or deceptive practices, and 
identifies companies that prioritize customer service and alleviate 
problems up front by helping consumers avoid ``bad actors.'' They 
further asserted that the addition of data on other products and 
services will extend and enhance these benefits of the database. 
Several contended that disclosure is one of the best tools government 
agencies can use to improve the operation of consumer financial markets 
and the consumer experience. They argued that consumers can draw their 
own conclusions from the public database, and endorsed its 
accessibility and adaptable architecture. Several stated that the data 
do not need to be fully verified nor randomly generated to be of 
potential use to outside parties, and they contended that the data can 
serve to help consumers and advocates detect trends of unfair, 
deceptive, or abusive acts and practices.
    Industry commenters, by contrast, mainly asserted that the 
publication of additional complaint data in the public database would 
mislead consumers because the data would be unverified, 
unrepresentative, lacking in context, and open to manipulation.\14\ In 
addition, several industry commenters did not appear to be aware that 
the Complaint System affords companies the opportunity to alert the 
Bureau if they are unable to verify the commercial relationship with 
the consumer who filed the complaint or believe the complaint was from 
an unauthorized third party, and that, in such circumstances, the 
Bureau will withhold such complaints from publication. Each of these 
general

[[Page 21221]]

assertions is addressed below. Section D addresses industry comments 
that disclosure of particular data fields--company name, zip code, 
complaint type, and discrimination fields--would be especially 
inappropriate or misleading.
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    \14\ It is worth noting that the Bureau was recently recognized 
by the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) for 
agency best practices. Specifically, the Bureau received honorable 
mention for the ACUS Walter Gellhorn Innovation Award for the 
Consumer Complaint Database for the innovative and transparent use 
of an online searchable database to empower consumers. The award 
honors the degree of innovation, cost savings to the government or 
the public, the ease of duplicating the best practices at other 
agencies, and the degree to which the best practices enhance 
transparency and efficiency in government.
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1. Verification
    Several trade associations commented that the Bureau should not 
disclose unverified data. Some argued that the Bureau should only 
include complaints found to have contained regulatory violations. 
Others stated that the consumer complaints are likely to contain only 
unsubstantiated, inaccurate, and frivolous allegations that could 
mislead consumers. One industry group pointed to the existence of 
conflicting accounts between the company and the consumer as a reason 
to withhold complaints from publication. Privacy and consumer groups, 
on the other hand, commented that the lack of verification presented 
only minimal risks to companies because of controls in place to ensure 
that complaints must come from actual customers of that company, and 
furthermore that companies are given adequate time to challenge the 
customer/company relationship. They further contended that the benefit 
of making the data public is not outweighed by the ``speculative harm 
of unverified complaints.''
    The Bureau acknowledges that the Complaint System does not provide 
for across the board verification of claims made in complaints. On its 
Web site, the Bureau makes clear that it does ``not verify the accuracy 
of all facts alleged in [the] complaints'' contained in the public 
database.\15\ However, while the Bureau does not validate the factual 
allegations of complaints, it does maintain significant controls to 
authenticate complaints.\16\ Finally, as noted elsewhere in this 
Notice, the Bureau believes that the information has value to the 
public and that the marketplace of ideas will determine what the data 
show.
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    \15\ Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Consumer Complaint 
Database, available at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase/.
    \16\ Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data (Notice of 
Final Policy Statement), 77 FR 37558, supra at 37561-37652 (June 22, 
2012).
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2. Representativeness
    Several trade associations reiterated previously submitted comments 
that it is inappropriate for the Bureau to publish data that is not 
randomly sourced. Non-random complaints, they contended again, cannot 
provide consumers with useful information. In contrast, one consumer 
group noted that the data need not be random to be of use in 
identifying trends and providing consumers with a valuable educational 
tool.
    The latter view finds support in analyses of the database conducted 
by independent researchers. For example, one report notes the 
database's potential for assisting companies in decreasing risk and 
cost, increasing customer service, and identifying best practices that 
allow companies to address problems before they become complaints by 
comparing the Bureau's complaint data, social media data, and 
companies' own internal records.\17\ Another independent researcher who 
examined the public database in September 2012 concluded that, ``the 
CFPB credit card complaint database provides clear, reliable and valid 
information for banks about their credit card practices.'' \18\
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    \17\ Beyond the Arc Analyzes CFPB Complaint Data to Enhance 
Customer Experience: Analytics firm leverages complaint data to 
guide financial institutions in best practices for customer 
experience efforts, Business Wire Jan. 31, 2013, available at http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130131006068/en/Arc-Analyzes-CFPB--(noting that the analysis of the CFPB database can help 
companies to detect regulatory risks and address them before 
potential for enforcement action, identify customer pain points to 
improve the customer experience and improve retention, and view 
competitors' strengths and weaknesses to help drive acquisition).
    \18\ B. Hayes, The Reliability and Validity of the Consumer 
Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Complaint Database, Business Over 
Broadway (Sept. 19, 2012). (``The frequency of different types of 
complaints are fairly stable over time. Additionally, the normative 
CFPB complaint scores are related to credit card customer 
satisfaction ratings (from an independent source); banks with better 
complaint scores (lower number of complaints) receive higher 
satisfaction ratings compared to banks with poor complaint scores 
(higher number of complaints).'') (available at http://businessoverbroadway.com/the-reliability-and-validity-of-the-consumer-financial-protection-bureau-cfpb-complaint-database).
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    Industry comments on representativeness also recognized that the 
Bureau is expressly authorized to use complaint data to set priorities 
in its supervision process. Some industry comments also recognized that 
the data could play a role with respect to other statutory obligations, 
such as fair lending enforcement or market monitoring. If complaint 
data can provide the Bureau with meaningful information, then logically 
they may also prove useful to consumers and other reviewers. If the 
data lacked such potential, Congress would not have pointed to 
complaints as a basis to inform important Bureau priorities.\19\ 
Furthermore, companies have told Consumer Response on numerous 
occasions that they learn valuable information from consumer 
complaints. If the data inform companies, they have the potential to 
inform consumers as well.
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    \19\ See 12 U.S.C. 5493(b)(3)(D).
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3. Context
    Several trade associations commented that Bureau disclaimers about 
the lack of verification or representativeness will not effectively 
warn consumers about the limitations of the public database. The 
associations expressed concern that consumers and the media will 
inevitably see or portray the information as being endorsed by the 
Bureau, notwithstanding the Bureau's disclaimers. In addition, one 
trade group commented that the marketplace of ideas cannot prevent 
consumers from being misled by the public database. Another commented 
that the database fails to distinguish complaints of major and minor 
significance or those based on confusion about a regulatory requirement 
from those asserting a regulatory violation, and that, without that 
context, the data are open to misinterpretation.
    One trade association suggested language for a new disclaimer, 
including statements that there are no attempts to verify the accuracy 
of any aspect of the complaint and that one should not draw any 
conclusion about any financial product or service, or any company 
mentioned. Given the various authentication measures used by the Bureau 
and the clear indication from--among others--Congress, companies 
themselves, and outside researchers that the data are informative, the 
Bureau has decided not to adopt this suggested language.
    Some trade associations did not seem to be familiar with the 
additional context that the Bureau already provides to consumers and 
reviewers, asserting that the Bureau does not encourage consumers to 
view the Bureau's aggregate data reports and that the database does not 
provide the public with the date that it was last updated. On the 
consumer complaint database Web page, in addition to tutorials on how 
to use the data tool and a description of how the Bureau processes 
complaints, the Bureau maintains a section on its affirmative reports 
of data findings and provides links to copies of each of the 
documents.\20\ Each time the data is displayed in the database, the 
``about'' section provides those viewing

[[Page 21222]]

the data with the date the Bureau last updated the contents.\21\
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    \20\ http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase/.
    \21\ https://data.consumerfinance.gov/dataset/Credit-Card-Complaints/25ei-6bcr#About.
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    The Bureau acknowledges the possibility that some consumers may 
draw (or be led to) erroneous conclusions from the data. That is true, 
however, for any market data. In addition, the Bureau's two-part 
disclosure policy--first, its own affirmative reports of data findings 
that it believes may inform consumers, and second, a public database 
that researchers and others can mine for possible data trends--is 
intended to minimize any consumer confusion about the scope of the 
Bureau's own conclusions with respect to the complaint data. The Bureau 
is open, however, to further suggestions from trade associations, 
companies, and other concerned stakeholders on how best to provide 
additional context for the public database.
4. Normalization
    The Bureau notes the general acceptance by consumer and industry 
groups that normalization can improve data utility. Thus, although 
trade associations uniformly reiterated their opposition to the release 
of company names in the public database, many recognized the importance 
of normalizing the data that the Bureau decides to release.
    One trade association suggested that normalization be addressed by 
the provision of independently verified data on the number of customer 
contacts on an annual basis, with the inclusion of an extra data field 
providing a proportion of complaints to contacts. Other commenters 
suggested including indications of scale, number of transactions or 
accounts, portfolio size, and information on closed or unopened 
accounts. Several groups and associations also noted that the database 
should provide the functionality to break down the data by types of 
products and services. The database does provide the ability to filter 
by product or service, and will continue to feature this function.
    The Bureau agrees with commenters that, if possible, normalization 
should account, for example, for closed accounts with a balance and 
declined loan applications because these are additional contacts with 
the consumer and may be the subject of complaints. One trade 
association noted that additional time to prepare a proposal on 
normalization would be helpful. The Bureau intends to work further with 
commenters and other interested stakeholders on specific normalization 
approaches, and welcomes further operational suggestions on the point.
5. Manipulation
    Several trade associations reiterated comments that third parties 
like debt negotiation companies could use complaint filing as a 
strategic tool to aid their clients. One trade association again 
commented that outside parties may artificially inflate complaint 
counts for litigation purposes. Several trade associations also 
repeated claims that one outside party has submitted numerous fraud 
complaints about a single merchant, allegedly for improper purposes.
    The Complaint System has a number of protections against 
manipulation. For example, the burden of submitting a complaint is not 
negligible. Consumers must affirm that the information is true to the 
best of their knowledge and belief. The consumer is asked for a 
verifiable account number for account-based services. If none is 
provided (or available) and the consumer is unable to produce 
verifiable documentation of the relationship with the provider (such as 
a statement or receipt), the complaint is not pursued further. As 
described further below, when a company offers a reasonable basis to 
challenge its identification in a complaint, the Bureau does not post 
the relevant complaint to the public database unless and until the 
correct company is identified. Furthermore, the Bureau takes steps to 
consolidate duplicate complaints from the same consumer into a single 
complaint.
    The Bureau maintains additional controls after complaints are 
submitted and companies are able to alert the Bureau to any suspected 
manipulation. Companies have the ability to provide feedback to the 
Bureau if they believe they are not the correct entity about which the 
consumer is complaining. In addition, companies can provide feedback to 
the Bureau about complaints they believe were not submitted by an 
authorized consumer or his or her representative. The Bureau may also 
intervene to clarify ambiguities if it observes anomalies in mass 
complaint submissions. As detailed in the final Policy Statement, where 
the company provides feedback that they are unable to verify the 
commercial relationship with the consumer who filed the complaint, the 
complaint will not be published in the database. If companies find this 
combined package of controls insufficient in practice, the Bureau is 
open to suggestions for addressing identifiable problems.

D. The Impact of Specific Public Database Fields on Consumers and 
Companies

1. Company Names
    Consumer groups commented that the disclosure of company names 
represents a significant aspect of the Bureau's policy. They noted that 
other complaint databases that disclose the identity of specific 
companies in other industries have created pressure on companies to 
improve whatever metrics are measured by the public database. As a 
result, these groups expect the Bureau's public database to cause 
companies to compete more effectively on customer service and product 
quality. Together with privacy and open government groups, consumer 
groups contended that outside groups can use the company data to help 
consumers make more informed decisions.
    Industry groups disagreed that disclosing company names serves 
these or any policy purposes. They reiterated previous comments that 
this form of disclosure would unfairly damage companies' reputation and 
competitive position. One trade association indicated that the 
inclusion of company names could implicate safety and soundness 
concerns, particularly in light of viral media. Several noted that the 
public database would not take account of the size and nature of the 
portfolio of different companies, which would cause consumer confusion. 
Others commented that company names should be reported as the parent 
company in order to avoid consumer confusion about the various ways 
companies with decentralized systems would show up in the database. 
Several industry groups also noted concerns over how a company acquired 
by another company would be displayed in the database. One trade 
association expressed a concern that disclosure of complaint data 
related to debt collection could be noncompliant with the Fair Debt 
Collection Practices Act, and suggested de-identification of company 
and consumer information related to such complaints.
    Trade groups asserted that if company names are to be included, 
they should be verified. Several noted that consumers would be 
particularly likely to name the merchant or other partner in connection 
with pre-paid cards, and not the actual issuer. Some noted that account 
numbers would not be sufficient for verification because the system 
will accept complaints without an account number and some complaints--
like declined application complaints--will arise even when there is no 
account number.

[[Page 21223]]

    The Bureau believes that industry comments fail to acknowledge the 
system controls that are in place to verify that a complaint is from an 
actual customer of the company and that the company is properly 
identified. If a consumer contacts the Bureau solely with an inquiry, 
it will not be recorded as a complaint and therefore not published in 
the database. Companies have the ability to notify the Bureau if they 
cannot take action because the complaint is not related to the company. 
No company will be associated with a complaint if it demonstrates a 
reasonable basis to challenge a commercial relationship with the 
consumer. Currently, the Complaint System provides companies 15 days to 
challenge company identification, a time period which experience has 
shown to be sufficient.\22\ As noted earlier, there are also system 
controls, including controls available to companies, designed to (i) 
identify and prevent publication of duplicate complaints from the same 
consumer, and (ii) to prevent other efforts to manipulate the Complaint 
System.
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    \22\ Several commenters seemed to misunderstand the 15- and 60- 
day company response windows. The CFPB requests that companies 
respond to complaints within 15 calendar days. If a complaint cannot 
be closed within 15 calendar days, a company may indicate that its 
work on the complaint is ``In progress'' and provide a final 
response within 60 calendar days. Company responses include 
descriptions of steps taken or that will be taken, communications 
received from the consumer, any follow-up actions or planned follow-
up actions, and categorization of the response.
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    For many complaints, account numbers provide a reliable method to 
verify the identity of the company. The Bureau acknowledges that some 
complaints may identify the company as the merchant or, for example, 
another partner. In such cases, the account number provided will not 
match the name provided. To prevent this, the Bureau can confirm the 
account number and other descriptive information with the consumer, and 
then substitute the name of the correct company. The merchant or other 
partners are not named. The Bureau also recognizes that there are cases 
in which no account number is available to the consumer, such as when 
credit applications are declined, or when the complaints involve 
services that are not tied to accounts. In these cases, the Bureau 
works directly with the consumer to identify the correct company from 
correspondence or other communications provided by or received from the 
company. If the correct company cannot be identified in this manner, 
the complaint will be closed and no data will be added to the public 
database.
    The Bureau acknowledges, as it did in the Proposed Complaint Data 
Disclosure Policy Statement, that there are significantly varying views 
among stakeholders about whether consumer and company provided data is 
useful to consumers. However, the Bureau continues to believe that this 
disclosure may allow researchers to inform consumers about potentially 
significant trends and patterns in the data. In addition, given that 
companies have made competitive use of this and other public databases, 
the Bureau anticipates these disclosures have the potential to sharpen 
competition over product quality and customer service.
    Furthermore, as several trade associations conceded and as 
previously noted above, Congress itself recognized that the Bureau may 
properly use consumer complaint data to set supervision, enforcement, 
and market monitoring priorities.\23\ If the Bureau is able to use 
complaint data in this way, there is good reason to allow consumers and 
outside researchers to weigh the importance of complaint data in their 
own research, analysis, and decision-making. Outside review of this 
kind will also help ensure that the Bureau remains accountable for 
addressing the complaints that it receives.
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    \23\ See, e.g., 12 U.S.C. 5493(b)(3)(D).
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    Finally, any privacy issues related to the Fair Debt Collection 
Practices Act will be considered and addressed when the Bureau begins 
accepting complaints about debt collection companies and considers 
disclosing related complaint data. Any issues raised with respect to 
processing of pre-paid cards, or other products and services about 
which the Bureau does not yet accept complaints, will be considered and 
addressed when the Bureau begins accepting such complaints and 
considers disclosing related complaint data. As stated in the final 
Policy Statement, the Bureau plans to study the effectiveness of its 
policy on an ongoing basis, and plans to continue to engage with the 
public, including regulated entities, as it assesses the efficacy of 
its complaint disclosure policy and retains the ability to make 
adjustments as needed when addressing the concerns of particular 
financial markets.
2. Zip Codes
    Consumer groups commented that the Bureau should add additional 
location fields, such as city and census tract level data. Several 
trade associations, however, commented that zip code disclosure creates 
risks to privacy because zip codes can be combined with other data to 
identify consumers, particularly in sparsely populated rural zip codes 
and with respect to particular types of products, and suggested 
disclosing only the state. Trade associations also commented that zip 
code data may be misunderstood to imply discriminatory conduct, leading 
to unfounded allegations of discrimination.
    The Bureau is mindful of the potential privacy implications of zip 
code disclosure. For the time being, and pending additional study, it 
will limit zip code disclosures to five digits, even if a consumer 
provides the full nine-digit zip code. Furthermore, as it analyzes the 
potential for narrative disclosure, the Bureau will consider the impact 
of zip code disclosures in assessing privacy risks. The Bureau will 
also analyze whether there are ways to disclose more granular location 
fields without creating privacy risks, as suggested by some commenters.
4. Discrimination
    Consumer groups and trade associations mainly reiterated comments 
made in response to the Credit Card Data Proposed Policy Statement. 
Consumer groups generally favored the inclusion of the data, and 
industry groups commented that it should remain excluded. One trade 
association suggested eliminating the field from the complaint intake 
forms altogether, citing a lack of meaningful data and evidence of 
value in its collection. Some consumer groups, however, suggested that 
the Bureau request protected class information to assist in the 
detection of patterns and practices of lending and credit 
discrimination, and provide an explanation to consumers as to the value 
in collecting such information.
    The Bureau is continuing to refine its methods for identifying 
discrimination allegations in complaints submitted by consumers. 
Accordingly, the Bureau does not plan to disclose discrimination field 
data in the public database at this time. In the interim, the Bureau 
will continue to study the conditions, if any, necessary for the 
appropriate disclosure of such information at the individual complaint 
level. The Bureau may also report discrimination allegation data at 
aggregated levels in its own periodic complaint data reports.
5. Type of Issue
    Trade and consumer groups reiterated comments that the Bureau could 
improve this data field in several respects, including allowing a 
consumer to be able to select several issues for a

[[Page 21224]]

given complaint. Several trade associations also repeated previous 
comments that the Bureau should not rely on consumers for this data 
point, and should allow companies to categorize the complaint data. The 
Bureau has worked to improve these categories, expanding the fields to 
include both a product and sub-product and, in some cases, an issue and 
sub-issue that the consumer can select. The Bureau stands by its 
previous statements and analysis on this issue.\24\
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    \24\ Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data (Notice of 
final policy statement), 77 FR 37558, supra at 37565 (June 22, 
2012).
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    The Bureau is working to develop the required functionality for a 
consumer to be able to ``tag'' a complaint as implicating more than one 
issue. In addition, the Bureau is weighing possible improvements to the 
issue categories and is considering the extent to which Bureau staff 
should ``tag'' complaints as raising certain issues. The Bureau 
welcomes further input from stakeholders on how to further improve the 
issue categories.
6. Company Disposition
    Consumer groups reiterated comments on the need to include 
additional data about the company's response, including narratives 
accompanying the disposition code and the date of the company 
response.\25\ Trade associations noted that response categories such as 
``Closed'' and ``Closed with explanation'' could have negative 
connotations, and one suggested adding an additional category of 
``closed with no relief required.'' Another industry group suggesting 
distinguishing company response categories according to the type of 
company and product involved in the complaint.
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    \25\ Specific comments on disclosure of company narratives are 
addressed in section E.2, and comments on date fields are addressed 
in section D.6 below.
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    The Bureau believes the changes previously made in response to 
industry concerns regarding the Complaint Systems' company response 
categories address the negative connotation concerns.\26\ In addition, 
creating additional company response categories for each product or 
service would deprive reviewers of the ability to compare responses 
across products and services. The Bureau stands by its previous 
statements and analysis on this issue.\27\
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    \26\ Consumer Response has provided detailed guidance to 
institutions participating in the Complaint System regarding these 
changes. Institutions can rely on the summary description provided 
herein in addition to more specific operational instructions.
    \27\ Disclosure of Certain Credit Card Complaint Data (Notice of 
final policy statement), 77 FR 37558, supra at 37565 (June 22, 
2012).
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7. Date Fields
    Finally, the Bureau agrees with the commenters who argued for the 
inclusion of additional dates in the public database such as the date 
of the company's response and the consumer's assessment of that 
response, so that a user of the public database would know how fast 
complaints are processed. The Bureau includes the date that a complaint 
is sent to the Bureau and the date that the Bureau forwards it to the 
relevant company.\28\ The Bureau is currently developing the technical 
ability to publish other date fields, including the date that a company 
responds. When this is feasible, the Bureau plans to include additional 
date fields in the public database.
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    \28\ There may be a lag between the two dates in part because, 
as noted above, consumers do not always submit complaints with 
sufficient information. In addition, some complaints are received 
via channels that trigger additional processing and data entry steps 
by the Bureau. For example, a complaint submitted via the web 
complaint form will move to the appropriate company faster than a 
hard-copy complaint referred by another agency that must be input 
into the Bureau's system.
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E. Potential Impacts of Undisclosed Fields

    The Bureau received a number of comments about data fields that the 
Proposed Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement did not list for 
disclosure in the public database, including consumer and company 
response narratives. The Bureau is not shifting any of these fields 
into the disclosed category in the final Policy Statement, although 
several fields remain under assessment for potential inclusion at a 
later date.
1. Consumer Narratives
    The issue of disclosing consumer narratives generated the most 
comments. Consumer, civil rights, open government, and privacy groups 
uniformly supported disclosure on the grounds that it would provide 
consumers with more useful information on which to base financial 
decisions and would allow reviewers to assess the validity of the 
complaint. These groups also noted the potential for the narrative data 
to reduce perceived risk of reputational harm by providing context to 
the complaints, and submitted a proposal that would allow the consumer 
to submit a complaint without the collection of confidential personal 
information in the complaint description. Their proposal would also 
provide a consumer the chance to opt out of narrative disclosure in the 
public database, in whole or in part.
    Trade groups and industry commenters nearly uniformly opposed 
disclosure of consumer narratives, reiterating comments made in 
response to the Bureau's Proposed Credit Card Data Disclosure Policy 
Statement. Several suggested that if the Bureau resolved to disclose 
narratives, it might inadvertently disclose personally identifiable 
information, with potentially significant consequences to the affected 
individuals. These commenters also argued that narrative disclosure 
might undermine the Bureau's mission to the extent that consumers, 
fearing potential disclosure of their personal financial information, 
would become reluctant to submit complaints. One trade association 
commented that the Bureau should consider the potential benefit of 
including both the consumer's narrative description and the company's 
narrative response.
    While acknowledging the general lack of consensus in this area, the 
Bureau notes that almost all commenters--in response to both the 
Proposed Credit Card Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement and the 
recently Proposed Consumer Complaint Data Disclosure Policy Statement--
agreed that the privacy risks of narrative disclosure must be carefully 
addressed if narrative disclosure is to take place. Accordingly, the 
Bureau will not publish narrative data until such time as the privacy 
risks of doing so have been carefully and fully addressed. In addition 
to assessing the feasibility of redacting personally identifiable 
information (``PII'') and narrative information that could be used for 
re-identification, by algorithmic and/or manual methods, the Bureau 
will carefully consider whether there are ways to give submitting 
consumers a meaningful choice of narrative disclosure options.
2. Responsive Company Narratives
    Consumer groups argued that companies should have the same ability 
as consumers to offer their responsive narratives for either public 
disclosure or private communication to the consumer. According to these 
commenters, this mechanism would protect consumer privacy, allow for 
effective communication between consumers and companies, and permit 
companies to respond publicly to public complaint narratives. Most 
trade associations disagreed, reiterating arguments that the Gramm-
Leach-Bliley Act prohibits them

[[Page 21225]]

from publicly disclosing any PII about their customers. Trade 
associations and a financial services provider suggested that the 
Bureau should consider the potential benefit of including the company's 
response. Company responses, they noted, could provide balance by 
incorporating important details regarding the nature and resolution of 
the complaints. In light of the Bureau's current disclosure position on 
consumer narratives, however, the Bureau is not resolving this issue at 
this point.

F. Addition of New Data Fields

    Several consumer groups asked the Bureau to add new data fields for 
collection and disclosure via the public database, including the 
ability to further define issue categories, noting that additional 
detail would make the database even more valuable as a pre-purchase 
educational tool. One group suggested that the database identify the 
commercial name of the individual financial product or service, not the 
company or product category alone. As noted, several groups urged that 
location data be provided at the city or census tract level to help 
identify discriminatory practices. To that same end, several groups 
urged the collection of demographic data on a voluntary basis. The 
Bureau discloses the product category (e.g., mortgage), and will now 
include additional information about the sub-product (e.g., reverse 
mortgage) that the consumer identifies. The Bureau will continue to 
evaluate the usefulness and benefit that additional fields may provide 
as it begins to accept complaints for additional types of consumer 
financial products or services. The Bureau is open to the inclusion of 
additional data fields and will continue to work with external 
stakeholders to address the value of adding such fields.

G. Posting Data for Complaints Submitted to Other Regulators

    One consumer group commented that the public database should 
include data on complaints that the Bureau forwards to other agencies. 
This group also commented that the Bureau should encourage other 
agencies to submit complaints to the Bureau's public database.\29\ 
Several trade associations expressed concerns about the publication of 
complaint data from other regulators, noting that complaints should 
simply be forwarded to the appropriate prudential regulator if not 
within the purview of the Bureau and not included in the database.
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    \29\ Along the same lines, one trade group objected to the 
disclosure of company names in part because the Bureau's database 
would only include complaints against larger financial institutions.
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    The Bureau agrees that the utility of the public database would be 
improved by the inclusion of as many complaint records as possible. As 
a result, it is open to other regulators providing parallel complaint 
data for inclusion in the public database. Until that can be achieved, 
however, the Bureau does not believe it would be that useful to include 
referred complaints in the public database. The Bureau would not be 
able to verify a commercial relationship, nor describe how and when a 
company responded to a referred complaint, or whether the consumer 
accepted or disputed the outcome.

IV. Final Policy Statement

    The text of the final Policy Statement is as follows:

1. Purposes of Consumer Complaint Data Disclosure

    The Bureau receives complaints from consumers about consumer 
financial products and services. The Bureau intends to disclose certain 
information about such consumer complaints in a public database and in 
the Bureau's own periodic reports. The purpose of this disclosure is to 
provide consumers with timely and understandable information about 
consumer financial products and services and to improve the functioning 
of the consumer financial markets for such products and services. By 
enabling more informed decisions about the use of consumer financial 
products and services, the Bureau intends for its complaint data 
disclosures to improve the transparency and efficiency of such consumer 
financial markets.

2. Public Access to Data Fields

    Data from complaints that consumers submit will be uploaded to a 
publicly accessible database, as described below.
a. Complaints Included in the Public Database
    To be included in the public database, complaints must: (a) Not be 
duplicative of another complaint at the Bureau from the same consumer; 
(b) not be a whistleblower complaint; (c) involve a consumer financial 
product or service within the scope of the Bureau's jurisdiction; and 
(d) be submitted by a consumer (or his or her authorized 
representative) with an authenticated commercial relationship with the 
identified company. The public database will include data from certain 
consumer complaints submitted on or after December 1, 2011.\30\ In 
addition, when the Bureau begins to accept complaints for a type of 
consumer financial product or service other than those immediately 
subject to this policy, the Bureau will delay publication of such 
complaints until a reasonable period of time has lapsed in order to 
evaluate the data and consider whether any product- or service-specific 
policy changes are warranted.
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    \30\ Credit card complaint data will be included from December 
1, 2011. Mortgage complaint data likewise will be included from 
December 1, 2011, the date the Bureau began accepting such 
complaints. Complaint data on bank accounts and services, private 
student loans, and other consumer loans will be included from March 
1, 2012, the date the Bureau began accepting these types of 
complaints.
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b. Fields Included in the Public Database
    For included complaints, the Bureau will upload to the public 
database certain non-narrative fields that do not call for PII. The 
Bureau plans to include the following fields:
    (i) Bureau-assigned unique ID number;
    (ii) Channel of submission to Bureau;
    (iii) Date of submission to Bureau;
    (iv) Consumer's 5-digit zip code;
    (v) Product or service;
    (vi) Sub-product;
    (vii) Issue;
    (viii) Date of submission to company;
    (ix) Company name;
    (x) Company response category;
    (xi) Whether the company response was timely; and
    (xii) Whether the consumer disputed the response.\31\
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    \31\ Additional fields remain under consideration for potential 
inclusion. For example, the Bureau may add a sub-issue field.
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    The consumer generates data for fields (iv), (v), (vi), (vii), and 
(xii). The Bureau will authenticate the consumer's identification of 
the relevant company in field (ix), and finalize the entry in that 
field as appropriate.\32\ If a company demonstrates by the 15-day 
deadline that it has been wrongly identified, no data for that 
complaint will be posted unless and until the correct company is 
identified. At the 15-day mark, however, the Bureau will post the 
complaint data with the originally identified company in field (ix) so 
long as the Bureau has account number or documentary data to support 
the identification. If the Bureau

[[Page 21226]]

cannot reasonably identify the company, however, the complaint will be 
closed without posting to the public database.
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    \32\ The consumer's account number generally will enable 
authentication of the correct company for account-based services. If 
an account number is not applicable or available, the Bureau works 
directly with the consumer to identify the correct company from 
company correspondence such as statements or letters. If the correct 
company cannot be identified in this manner, no data is posted to 
the database. Account numbers will never become part of the public 
database.
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    The complaint system automatically populates the two date fields, 
(iii) and (viii). The Bureau completes fields (i), (ii), and (xi).\33\ 
The company completes field (x). If it selects ``Closed with monetary 
relief'' for field (x), the company will also enter the amount of 
monetary relief provided, although information as to amounts will not 
be included in the public database.\34\ Field (x) will show as ``In 
progress'' if the company responds within 15 days indicating additional 
time is needed (up to 60 calendar days). The company's later response 
will then overwrite the ``In progress'' data entry. If no response is 
provided within 60 days, the field will be updated accordingly and 
updated as untimely.
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    \33\ If a response is untimely, at either the 15- or 60-day 
mark, field (xi) will show that the company did not respond on a 
timely basis. The company's substantive response, if it eventually 
makes one, will still be shown in field (x), but the untimeliness 
entry will remain.
    \34\ The Bureau is not planning to disclose the consumer's 
claimed amount of monetary loss and, as a result, believes it would 
be inappropriate to disclose, in the individual case, the amount of 
relief provided by the company. The Bureau, however, may include 
non- individual data on monetary relief in its own periodic reports. 
The Bureau has determined not to include the consumer's claimed 
amount of monetary relief because a review of complaints shows that 
consumers have had difficulty stating the amount and prefer to 
provide a narrative description of the relief that they believe to 
be appropriate.
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c. When Data Is Included in the Public Database
    The Bureau will generally add field data to the public database for 
a given complaint within 15 days of forwarding the complaint to the 
company in question. If the company responds ``Closed with monetary 
relief,'' ``Closed with non-monetary relief,'' ``Closed with 
explanation,'' ``Closed,'' or ``In progress'' before the 15-day 
deadline for response, the Bureau will then post applicable data for 
that complaint to the public database. If the company fails to respond 
at all by the 15-day deadline, the Bureau will also post data for that 
complaint at that point. In such case, the company response category 
field will be blank and the ``Untimely Response'' field will be marked. 
As noted above, if a company demonstrates by the 15-day deadline that 
it has been wrongly identified, no data for that complaint will be 
posted unless and until the correct company is identified. Once the 
Bureau discloses some data for a given complaint, it will add to the 
public database any new complaint data that are subject to disclosure 
as they become available. Subject to these various restrictions, data 
will be posted to the public database on a daily basis.
d. Public Access
    A public platform for the public database will enable user-defined 
searches of the posted field data. Each complaint will be linked with a 
unique identifier, enabling reviewers to aggregate the data as they 
choose, including by complaint type, company, location, date, or any 
combination of variables. The data platform will also enable users to 
save and disseminate their data aggregations. These aggregations can be 
automatically updated as the public database expands to include more 
complaints. Finally, users will be able to download the data or analyze 
it via an Application Programming Interface.
e. Excluded Fields
    The public database will not include PII fields such as a 
consumer's name, account number, or address information other than a 5-
digit zip code. At least until it can conduct sufficient further study 
and install satisfactory controls, the Bureau will not post to the 
public database the consumer's narrative description of ``what 
happened,'' his or her description of a ``fair resolution,'' or his or 
her reason for disputing the company's response, if applicable. The 
Bureau also will not post a company's narrative response. The Bureau 
intends to study the potential inclusion of narrative fields as 
described further in section 4 of this Policy Statement.

3. Regular Bureau Reporting on Complaints

    At periodic intervals, the Bureau intends to publish reports about 
complaint data, which may contain its own analysis of patterns or 
trends that it identifies in the complaint data. To date, the Bureau 
has published eight reports containing aggregate complaint data.\35\ 
The Bureau intends for its reporting to provide information that will 
be valuable to consumers and other market participants. Before 
determining what reports to issue beyond those relating to its own 
handling of complaints, the Bureau will study the volume and content of 
complaints that it has received in a given reporting period for 
patterns or trends that it is able to discern from the data. If the 
data will support it, the Bureau intends for its reports to include 
certain standardized metrics that would provide comparisons across 
reporting periods. The reports will also describe the Bureau's use of 
complaint data across the range of its statutory authorities during a 
reporting period. Because monetary relief data will not be included in 
the individual-level public database, the Bureau anticipates such data 
will be included at non-individual levels in its own periodic 
reporting.
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    \35\ See note 5, supra.
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4. Matters for Further Study

    Going forward, the Bureau intends to study the effectiveness of its 
consumer complaint disclosure policy in realizing its stated purposes, 
and plans to continue to engage with the public, including regulated 
entities, as it makes these assessments. The Bureau will also analyze 
options for normalization, and welcomes further input from stakeholders 
on how to implement such metrics. In addition, the Bureau will assess 
whether there are practical ways to disclose narrative data submitted 
by consumers and companies in a manner that will improve consumer 
understanding without undermining privacy interests or the 
effectiveness of the consumer complaint process, and without creating 
unwarranted reputational injury to companies.

5. Effect of Policy Statement

    This Policy Statement is intended to provide guidance regarding the 
Bureau's exercise of discretion to publicly disclose certain data 
derived from consumer complaints. The Policy Statement does not create 
or confer any substantive or procedural rights on third parties that 
could be enforceable in any administrative or civil proceeding.

    Authority: 12 U.S.C. 5492(a), 5493(b)(3), 5496(c)(4), 
5511(b)(1), (5), and (c)(3), 5512(c)(3)(B).

    Dated: March 25, 2013.
Richard Cordray,
Director, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.
[FR Doc. 2013-07569 Filed 4-9-13; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 4810-25-P