On Sept. 22, 2014, ACA International submitted comments urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to abandon its proposal to provide consumers with the option to include unstructured narratives when submitting complaints about consumer financial products and services, including debt collection, on the CFPB’s public-facing Consumer Complaint Database.

In its comment letter, ACA forcefully opposes the CFPB’s proposed new policy to add even more potentially misleading and unfair information to the database through anecdotal complaint narratives that undergo no verification of accuracy or wrongdoing. In addition to the inherent privacy issues associated with publishing consumer narratives, ACA notes that adoption of the proposal will serve only to further exacerbate the flaws inherent in the database’s current composition, causing more harm to consumers, companies providing financial services and the bureau itself.

In response to the CFPB’s specific questions for comment, ACA underscores how critical it is for the bureau to make clear to consumers that by choosing to opt-in to display their narrative publicly, consumers are also opting-in to the company being able to publish their side of the story publicly as well.

To fairly protect companies’ participation in the complaint process, ACA advocates for the bureau to provide a safe harbor from regulatory enforcement action and private lawsuits stemming from the bureau’s publication of a company’s good faith response to a consumer’s complaint in the database. In addition, ACA points out the difficulty companies will face in crafting satisfactory public responses that provide enough detail for consumers to gain an understanding of a company’s actions without undermining a customer’s privacy. Because of the significant legal obligation to protect customer privacy, companies will essentially be deprived of the important opportunity to “tell their side of the story” on the database.

Instead of moving forward with its flawed proposal, ACA urges the CFPB to focus on how to better screen and analyze complaints so that the database will be comprised of high quality, accurate and meaningful data.

To the extent the CFPB nevertheless decides to move forward with its new policy, ACA argues that it does not make sense to include complaint narratives in the debt collection context. Unlike other industries in which consumers can pick and choose with whom to do business, debt collection is unique in that consumers do not have the ability to select their debt collector. Thus, debt collection narratives will not carry even the marginal benefits the bureau envisions in other contexts where narratives could influence consumer decision-making.

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