June 21, 2012 at 6:25 AM ET
Which bank is the stingiest at handing out refunds to consumers who complain? Wouldn't you like to know?
This story offers some insight into the first question, based on complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the past year.
This week, the bureau began offering consumers the chance to look into its massive database of complaints -- albeit in limited fashion. Only complaints filed since about June 1 – or 173 of the total of 42,000-- are currently available for public viewing at the agency's website.
But msnbc.com obtained the full database of complaints under a Freedom of Information Act request and has done some crunching of the numbers.
The data on the bureau's website were limited, in part, because the agency is still tinkering with the way it logs complaints. It has several times refined the way it describes complaint resolution, for example. That means data codified under the old system are of limited value to researchers, and to the public.
Still, with 42,000 entries, there are things to learn from the data. For now, we're focusing on resolution involving consumers who complained they were hit with an unfair fee. There are 1,458 such complaints in the data. Most of these complaints involved credit card accounts (a few involve student loans).
Of these fee-related complaints, 204 were labeled "closed without relief," meaning the bank gave no monetary compensation to the complainer, and another 45 were labeled "no resolution provided," for a total of 17 percent. On the other hand, 424 were "closed with relief," and another 365 cases were designated "full resolution provided" – a winning percentage of 51 percent. That shows the value of being a squeaky wheel, at least when it comes to fees.
Various other designations, such as "misdirected," or "In progress" round out the results.
When considering data like this, it's of little use to count up totals and compare. It should be no surprise that really large banks like Bank of America attracted more complaints than medium-sized institutions like PNC Bank, for example. But in the case of relief granted, a percentage of success or failure by consumers offers a little more information.
It turns out the J.P. Morgan Chase customers who complained were turned down least often among the 10 banks with the most fee-related complaints -- only about 10 percent were rejected, and conversely, 83 percent were granted relief and/or resolution. GE Capital customers actually did a little better on the relief side, with 85 percent winning. Barclays, Capital One and Bank of America customers all got some kind of relief more than 70 percent of the time.
On the other side other side of the spectrum, US Bank customers fared the worst. Only 40 percent got relief; the same percentage were rejected by the bank (the data doesn't say what happened to the middle 20 percent). Also faring badly -- Citibank, Discover and American Express customers, who were rejected more than 25 percent of the time. Capital One customers, despite their 70 percent success rate, were rejected 25 percent of the time.
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These results should be taken with a huge grain of salt. At this level of granularity the sample size is quite small -- with some banks, there were fewer than 50 fee-related complaints. And the banking industry has valid concerns about the accuracy of the complaints. Nessa Feddis, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, correctly points out that a bank that has a particularly effective internal complaint resolution program could be wrongly portrayed as a bad actor by the CFPB data.
"Maybe internally they have a 99 percent success rate and the only people who file with the bureau don't have a legitimate complaint, and that bank might look worst," she said. "It would skew the percentages."
She also said banks with high “no relief” scores could simply be “(getting) it right the first time” when it comes to billing issues.
Feddis also complained more broadly about the idea that consumer complaints were being released to the public without vetting by a bureau official for legitimacy.
"Some people file complaints about a fee that they understood and agreed to and simply don’t want to pay, or they misremember,” she said. “There is simply no way to tell whether the complaint is valid or reasonable and the issuer doesn’t get to provide its side of the story. Hardly American due process."
Msnbc.com chose fee-related complaints for a reason. The chief criticism of the CFPB complaint database by the banking industry has surrounded the various designations for resolution. Initially, only consumers who received monetary compensation were designated as having obtained relief. When the banking industry complained that banks often offer non-monetary relief -- such as taking steps to improve a consumer’s credit score -- the bureau agreed and changed its coding system.
Fee-related complaints, however, offer a more clear data point for inspection: Consumers complaining about late fees, cash advance fees and balance transfer fees generally either get their money back, or they don't. By limiting this analysis to fee-related complaints, the resolution data is still informative, with this caveat, provided on background by a person familiar with how the bureau’s database works: A small percentage of consumers who were granted a fee waiver – as opposed to a refund – by their credit card issuer may have had their complaints coded as “without relief.” The person said the number of entries impacted by that distinction wouldn’t skew the overall results.
Jen Howard, spokeswoman for the bureau, said it wouldn't comment on the msnbc.com results.
Here’s the top 10 list of most generous and most stingy banks, presented with the above caveats: