The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued its latest monthly report summarizing complaints made by the public to the CFPB regarding bank account and service issues. The CFPB asserts that “many consumers are experiencing problems opening up and managing accounts, while other consumers found their accounts closed without explanation.”

According to the report, the three primary areas for complaints are as follows:

  1. Account opening: Consumers complain that they are unable to open accounts and are unable to determine why they are unable to do so.
  2. Access to funds: Consumers complain that their access to deposited funds is restricted.
  3. Disputing transactions: Consumers complain that it is difficult to dispute transactions and receive refunds or credits when a dispute is sustained.

The CFPB names the financial institutions that received the most complaints and provides many other metrics based on information in its Consumer Complaint Database.

The monthly report demonstrates ongoing issues and complications presented by the Consumer Complaint Database. Without intake controls and other substantive screening of complaints, the information the database provides is arguably skewed and does not reflect the entire picture of how financial institutions provide consumer financial services. While financial institutions are required to respond to consumer complaints, not all responses are public, and the database itself provides metrics based in part on unproven or unfounded assertions. The CFPB does not screen complaints for their validity or factual basis before accepting the complaint and forwarding it on to the financial institution for a response.

The monthly report also lacks substantive analysis about the reasons behind many of the issues about which consumers complain. For example, an account opening denial might be due to credit risk, AML concerns, or fraud concerns. Indeed, if banks were to ignore these concerns and open accounts for individuals and entities where there is a reasonable suspicion of other misconduct, the CFPB (as well as other federal and state agencies) might take action against the same institutions for assisting and facilitating various violations of law.

Many of the CFPB’s enforcement actions have been against financial institutions under an “assisting and facilitating” theory. This leaves those institutions in a situation where they are unable to fully comply with the government’s expectations. Taking the above example, the financial institution has the choice between denying an account (risking a complaint) or granting an account despite concerns (risking prosecution for AML or consumer fraud violations).

Financial institutions should be prepared to demonstrate to federal and state regulators the reasons behind actions related to consumer accounts, such as account opening denials and delays in consumer access to funds. In cases where the financial institution is caught between a regulatory “rock and a hard place,” good recordkeeping can go a long way in satisfying bank examiners and financial regulatory agencies about appropriate actions taken on the part of the financial institution.

Financial institutions should also appreciate that statements made to the CFPB will ultimately be seen by other federal and state agencies, as well as plaintiffs’ lawyers. In considering whether and how to respond, financial institutions should be situationally aware of all risks, not only those posed by the CFPB.