A new publicly available database of consumer complaints about big bank credit card programs may benefit credit unions trying to market their card programs, industry observers speculated.
Credit unions are known for having more consumer friendly credit card programs, but they are often slow to market cards on those qualities.
“This represents another tremendous opportunity for the 3,200-plus card-issuing credit unions to promote their credit card programs. Time to put the credit card product front and center on their credit union website homepage,” said Ondine Irving, a consumer card advocate and founder of the credit union card website, Credit Card Connection.
Since the database only included card issuers with more than $10 billion in assets, it’s unlikely that it will contain many credit union issued cards directly, but Irving pointed out that credit unions that partnered with major bank card issuers could find they wind up on the database through that association.
“For those credit unions who have sold their program to banks–don’t be surprised if complaints creep up about your pseudo credit union card program–due to the higher rates, member service issues and fees–which are typically not found on credit union issued card programs,” she added.
That may be true, but the agency’s initial release of the database had only 137 listings and only one credit union card partner, Bank of America, was among the bank’s listed.
“No longer will consumer complaints only be known to the individual complainant, bank, regulator and those in the public willing to pursue this information through the Freedom of Information Act,” the agency wrote in a weblog entry about the database that was made available last week. “Instead this data-rich window into consumer financial issues will be widely available to everyone: developers, policymakers, journalists, academics, industry and you. Our goal is to improve the transparency and efficiency of the credit card market to further empower American consumers.”
The database was not welcomed as a good thing by all credit unions, even if I would almost exclusively focus on bank cards.
“NAFCU understands the CFPB has the authority to investigate legitimate consumer complaints,” said NAFCU CEO Fred Becker. “Unfortunately, we fear that this new database may open the door to frivolous and unsubstantiated complaints. In addition, given the nature of viral media, disclosing all complaints may paint a misleading picture and trigger reputational risks for solid institutions that could raise safety and soundness concerns for the financial institutions in question.”
In a Jan. 30 comment letter, the association argued that the agency should only post complaint information that it had somehow verified. “Disclosing every complaint, without any indication of the veracity of the complaint, is inherently misleading,” NAFCU wrote. “NAFCU encourages the CFPB to implement a system that distinguishes between legitimate complaints and baseless complaints that are without merit, and to disclose only those complaints that are justified.”
CUNA made a similar point in its Jan. 30 comment letter about the agency’s policy statement that underpinned the database. “CUNA supports the ability of consumers to have timely and clear information on responsible credit card use. However, we do not support the public release of certain credit card complaint information that is separate from and in addition to the agency’s periodic reports and analysis, which provide more complete credit card complaint information to consumers. While we do not anticipate that credit unions, as member owned cooperatives, will be the subject of a sizable number of complaints, nonetheless we have concerns the proposed public data release could have unintended consequences.”
But social media experts suggested that both associations’ objections to the database are out of touch with how most consumers use the Internet and things like consumer reviews of products and services to make purchasing decisions.
“Having verified consumer reviews of a product or service is simply incredibly rare,” said Brent Franson, vice president with Reputation.com, a Web-based service that helps small businesses and professionals monitor and protect their online reputations. “If I go to Google travel and review a destination, nobody comes and checks up on me that I actually went there or if I actually ate in a given restaurant or even who I am. I could be anonymous.”
That would seem to make consumer reviews of limited utility to consumers, but Franson pointed out that 92% of consumers surveyed now say they check reviews before purchasing a product or service.
What NAFCU and CUNA may fail to understand is that reviews’ utility is in the aggregate, not the individual reviews, Franson contended. Just as consumers understand and discount any single review as possibly not representative and will instead evaluate a number of reviews, most consumers will look at the complaints in the database in the same way and evaluate consumer complaints about an given bank’s cards like they use consumer reviews, he added.
Jeff Russell, CEO of a card issuing CUSO TMG Financial Services, tended to see both sides of the question. “Nobody is going argue against transparency,” Russell said, “But I can’t help wishing that the agency had a procedure for removing complaints that have been found inaccurate or have been resolved.” Nonetheless, he said his CUSO, which issues cards in agent relationships with credit unions, would welcome anything that would help his client credit cards’ stand out more clearly against their competition.
Robert Hackney, president of Card Services for Credit Unions, acknowledged that the database could help his member credit unions market their cards, but nonetheless noted that, unlike reviews, the database would only include complaints and would not include any way for readers to see the context of the complaint.
And Susan Grant, the director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, lauded the decision and argued public complaints would be a spur to improved issuer behavior.
“Industry has expressed concerns and argued that this information should not be made public, but we don’t believe that it will be detrimental to reputable companies,” Grant said. “If credit card issuers improve their practices and the way that they respond when customers contact them about problems, customers will be happier with their services and less likely to complain to the CFPB,” she added.