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How to explore consumer problems in the financial marketplace using the CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database

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As soon as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) opened its doors in 2011, it began accepting complaints from consumers facing problems in the financial marketplace — and often helping those consumers fix their problems or get financial relief.

But the CFPB didn’t stop at just accepting complaints. In 2012, it began making complaint data available to the public through the Consumer Complaint Database. Over the years, the database has become a treasure trove of information on consumer experiences in the financial marketplace, offering critical insights for consumers, researchers, CFPB watchdogs and the private sector. And the two-way flow of information it provides is a demonstration of what 21st century responsive government can look like.

The information in the database can be incredibly powerful, and it has served as an important data source for dozens of pieces of research by Frontier Group and our partners at U.S. PIRG Education Fund. It can also present challenges for new users. So, as an author of some of our most recent research analyzing complaint data, I’ve compiled some information and tips for getting the most out of the database, and also built a new tool for downloading data.

Filtering complaints

As of February 2021, the Consumer Complaint Database contained nearly 2 million complaints. This volume of information can be overwhelming — but the CFPB makes it easy to filter complaints to find just the ones you need.

Every complaint in the database is published with a variety of basic information, such as the state and zip code the complaint was filed from, the company involved and the date the complaint was received by the CFPB. Perhaps most importantly, each complaint also includes information on the type of financial product involved, as well as the issue or problem the consumer faced.

Product and issue categories — along with the even narrower sub-product and sub-issue categories — are selected by consumers when they submit a complaint either online or over the phone. For example, a consumer who believes they were charged an unfair overdraft fee might first select their financial product (“Checking or savings account”) and sub-product (“Checking account”). Then, they would select the issue they faced (“Problem caused by your funds being low”) along with the sub-issue (“Overdrafts and overdraft fees”).

From the database homepage, complaints can be filtered using both the sidebar (with check boxes for product type, issue and other categories) and the search bar (which searches for text in complaint narratives and company names). The screenshot below shows that, after filling in filters for date, product and issue, so far this year there have been 49 complaints about problems with checking account overdraft fees.

 

Tips for complaint filtering:

  • Be wary of database changes in April 2017. Because of the CFPB’s changes to product and issue names, data from time periods including that month will include conflicting names for products and issues. As a result, it’s usually a good idea to restrict searches to either before or after — but not including — April 2017.
  • Complaints are generally listed with their parent company name, which may be different from the company name that you know. So if you don’t see any complaints involving your first company search, try looking for a parent company name through an internet search or using the search bar to turn up complaint narratives containing the company name.
  • Try using the “tags” to filter for complaints from military servicemembers (and their spouses or dependents), and from older Americans (people 62 or older).
  • Once you have created the data filter you want, save the URL for later use — the URL will always return the filter you created. However, be aware that as the CFPB publishes new complaints following its review process, complaint volumes may change, particularly for recent months.

Reading consumer stories

The Consumer Complaint Database is powerful not just for the quantity of complaint data it contains, but for the individual stories told by consumers about their experiences with financial products — “consumer complaint narratives” in CFPB parlance. In our reporting, these stories have helped shed light and detail on consumer experiences.

Not every complaint has a public narrative, as consumers submitting a complaint must opt in to publishing their story. To filter for only those complaints that contain narratives, scroll down the page and check the box marked “Only show complaints with narratives.” Then, to see individual complaints rather than a map or a trendline, make sure that the “List” tab at the top of the page is selected (rather than “Map” or “Trends”).

For example, after filtering overdraft complaints just for those with a public narrative, I can see the most recent consumer story for this particular issue: a consumer who says they were charged an overdraft fee twice for the same transaction. The complaint also contains the financial institution name, the consumer’s home state, the date of the complaint, and information about the company’s response. (Note that the XXXs in the narrative, pictured below, represent redacted text following the CFPB’s scrubbing the complaint of personal information in order to protect privacy.)

The complaint also has a blue link with the complaint’s unique identifier, in this case 4095652 — you can save that number, or the link URL, to reference the complaint later.

 

Tips for finding and reading consumer narratives:

  • Remember to check the box marked “Only show complaints with narratives” when looking for consumer stories.
  • Use the search bar to find consumer complaint narratives that mention a specific word. When using the search bar, try using the “advanced search tips” dialog to use “fuzzy” word searches and proximity word searches, which will return results with different spellings or phrasings.
  • When reading a narrative, consider the context. Are there other complaints like it for that company? What was the “company public response” to a complaint, and was the complaint closed with either monetary or non-monetary relief?

The Consumer Complaint Database is a near-realtime reflection of consumer experiences in the financial marketplace, and one of its most powerful uses is spotting trends. Looking at changes in complaints over time can reveal whether some problems are becoming more common, whether new financial products are giving consumers headaches, or whether specific companies are being complained about more than usual. For example, in our report about auto loan complaints, we found there was a dramatic increase in the volume of complaints about auto loan payment relief during the pandemic.

There are a few ways to find this kind of trend data:

1. Use the CFPB’s built-in trend tool

The easiest way to view trend data is using the built-in tools on the database homepage. To see trend data, first make sure that the “Trends” tab at the top of the page is selected. Right away, you’ll see a chart showing changes in total complaints over time, grouped by month. You can change the “date interval” option to also see complaints grouped by day, quarter or year.

By filtering complaints using the sidebar, you can limit the chart to only show the filtered complaints. For example, I can still easily see the previously mentioned spike in auto loan relief complaints. By selecting the “vehicle loan or lease” financial product, and the “denied request to lower payments” sub-issue category, it is apparent that these complaints rose dramatically in the early days of the pandemic, and have remained at higher-than-normal levels since. By moving the mouse over the chart, I can see that these complaints reached a peak of 96 complaints in April 2020.

Unfortunately, the CFPB’s trend tool is limited. Notably, you cannot export aggregated trend data for analysis or charting offline, and you cannot perform certain important aggregations, such as complaints by company.


2. Download complaint data

To dive deeper into complaint trends and get complete control over aggregating and charting complaints — including by company — you’ll need to download complaint data, and then perform analysis using software like Excel. Performing queries on downloaded complaint data is the best way to answer complex questions, and offline analysis has been the basis both for our own research, as well as for academic studies using advanced statistics methods.

To download complaint data, start by filtering data as needed, and then click “export data” near the top of the screen. This will create a pop-up dialog box asking if you’d like to download only those complaints for which you have filtered, or download the entire dataset of complaints. It’s often better to download a subset of complaints, as the full dataset is a large file size, and as previously noted contains conflicting category names resulting from changes made in April 2017.

3. Use Frontier Group’s CFPB data tool

Finally, you can view and download aggregated complaint data through Frontier Group’s new CFPB trend data online tool.

This tool was built using the Consumer Complaint Database API, which taps directly into the CFPB’s database and allows anyone with some programming know-how to build applications that can go beyond the capabilities of the official database website and provide users with new ways to access complaint data. Unfortunately, the API also lacks some important options, like the ability to aggregate complaints by company.

The data tool is a work in progress, so please let us know if you have feedback, either by creating an issue on the project’s GitHub page or by sending an email. The CFPB’s API itself is also under active development and you can provide the CFPB with feedback, too.

  • When aggregating and comparing complaints by state, consider looking at per capita complaints.
  • Aggregating complaints by zip code can be a powerful tool for spotting geographic trends. However, note that for privacy purposes many complaint zip codes are only available with the first three digits, depending on zip code population and whether the complaint includes a published narrative. For GIS mapping purposes, a shapefile of 3-digit zip codes is available here.
  • Consider combining keyword searches and trend analysis. For example, in one recent blog post we looked only at complaints containing key words related to COVID-19.

The CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database is a powerful tool for understanding the problems consumers face in the financial marketplace. But it’s also both ripe for improvement and frequently threatened with removal from public view. The more people that use it — and the more people that publicize the tool’s utility and write to the CFPB with suggestions — the better off we will all be.