When U.S. officials began collecting consumer complaints about credit cards, one goal was to identify patterns that could help them write rules protecting families with low and moderate incomes.
Nearly two years later, it’s the well-to-do neighborhoods of Florida and New York that are supplying the most grievances to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an analysis of agency data shows.
Of the top four zip codes contributing to the 18,539 complaints published as of March 18, two are on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and two in south Florida -- Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens. Almost 60 percent of complaints originated in zip codes where the median household income is higher than the national median of $52,762, according to the analysis.
The firms cited most often in the disputes are some of the biggest card issuers: Capital One Financial Corp., Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and GE Capital Retail Bank, a unit of General Electric Co.
The consumer bureau, established by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, started collecting complaints about credit cards in July 2011 and works with financial companies to resolve them. The agency has since opened the system to other products including mortgages, bank accounts, student loans and vehicle loans.
Richard Cordray, the agency’s director, will hold a hearing on the complaint system tomorrow in Des Moines, Iowa. He said on March 12 that the bureau has received more than 130,000 complaints of all types.
“Through our consumer response operation, we have helped return millions of dollars to consumers and have addressed many problems that had been frustrating your constituents for months or even years,” Cordray told lawmakers.
The bureau will expand the system this year to collect complaints about other financial services, such as short-term loans and debt collection, and will publish more of the data, according to two people briefed on the issue who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans aren’t public.
Only the lists of credit-card complaints have been posted on the bureau’s website. The records don’t give the names of those filing complaints or reproduce their comments. The bureau data includes the customer’s zip code, the bank issuing the card, the nature of the dispute and how it was resolved. Bloomberg News compared the data with information from the U.S. Census Bureau, which tracks income by zip code.
Zip codes with median annual household incomes higher than the national median generated 11,045 complaints, or 59.6 percent of the total, the data show. Boca Raton zip code 33496 produced 94 complaints, the most in the country, while 54 complaints came from Manhattan’s Upper West Side zip codes 10023 and 10024 combined.
Prosperous people “can often get upset over small amounts of money. You find these people with a huge net worth worrying about a $3 fee,” said Steven Ramirez, the chief executive of Beyond the Arc Inc., a Berkeley, California-based consulting firm that uses the consumer bureau’s system to help companies improve customer service.
Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who set up the bureau before she won a seat in the U.S. Senate, said in March 2011 congressional testimony that the focus on credit cards was meant to help millions of borrowers who use them “to pay for medical expenses, to cover educational costs, to tide them over during a period of unemployment, to cover emergency expenses, or simply to make it to the end of the month.”
The fact that more complaints are coming from wealthier communities doesn’t mean that the bureau is helping those groups disproportionately, said Matt Simester, managing director at Auriemma Consulting Group Inc., a New York-based firm that advises card issuers.
It may reflect that people with higher incomes are more likely to hold credit cards and that many consumers aren’t yet aware they can file complaints through the agency, Simester said.
In its most recent report on card usage, the Census Bureau found that in 2007 more than 94 percent of households with incomes of $100,000 or more had credit cards, while just 28 percent of those with incomes of $10,000 and below used them. People with incomes above $150,000 in 2012 had an average of 3.8 credit cards, according to a survey by Auriemma.
The consumer bureau’s data suggest that income has little bearing on the resolution of the complaints. In zip codes where income was greater than the national median, 17.8 percent of consumers got some money back. From areas below the national median, a slightly larger percentage, 18.1 percent, got the same treatment. In both income groups, about 23 percent of consumers got no monetary or other relief.
Simester said it is now typical in the card industry that complaints coming through a regulator get “a red flag” for quick resolution. He said issuers give the same treatment to all cardholders who complain to a regulator, regardless of how lucrative their business is to the company.
“If somebody complains to CFPB, there is a process that all the agents at the issuer will have to follow,” Simester said in an interview. “And it won’t matter what value they ascribe to their relationship with the customer.”
The complaints to the bureau covered similar topics across all zip codes. Billing and interest rates led the list. For example, 15.7 percent of complaints from zip codes with below-median income involved billing disputes, compared with 14.7 percent from more prosperous areas. Lower-income areas generated marginally more complaints about late fees.
The bureau chose to reveal the names of companies facing complaints despite protests from bank lobbyists that making them public would tarnish respectable brands.
Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association, said in an interview that the industry still objects to publication of the data because the agency doesn’t first verify whether the complaints are valid.
The bureau puts out the records without indicating that the complaints come from only a fraction of the estimated 500 million active credit-card accounts, Feddis said.
“There’s no context, no way of seeing that these are one in a thousand or something,” she said.
The bureau has sought to use its complaint system to encourage banks to resolve disputes, allowing the firms to establish direct Internet connections to access the records and report on their status.
An informal survey of banks published in July 2012 by the law firm Mayer Brown LLP found that 28 percent had altered complaint-resolution systems in response to the bureau’s system. Also, 22 percent said they created new procedures for evaluating possible consumer harm from their services.
Michael Mallow, a finance lawyer with Loeb & Loeb LLP in Los Angeles, said banks are motivated to make changes because the agency directly supervises them and could use consumer complaints in enforcement actions.
The consumer bureau “will find you anyway, so you might as well get ahead of the game,” Mallow said in an interview.
Warren’s early efforts to publicize the bureau and its work are a big reason that complaints about credit cards are coming in at a pace averaging nearly 1,000 per month, said Jo Ann Barefoot, a consultant with Treliant Risk Advisers.
“Elizabeth Warren pulled all of this over into popular culture, and what we’re seeing now is the effects of that,” Barefoot said in an interview.