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Consumer agency sees confusion on credit cards

Credit cards are pictured in a wallet in Washington
Credit cards are pictured in a wallet in Washington

By Dave Clarke

(Reuters) - In its first three months in operation, the U.S. consumer financial watchdog received more than 5,000 complaints from credit card customers, led by billing disputes and interest rate problems.

The agency on Wednesday released the first batch of data collected on credit card complaints since it opened for business on July 21.

"When consumers contact us, we get a snapshot of how the consumer finance markets are working," Raj Date, the Treasury Department adviser running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement. "And we are learning that there is a lot of consumer confusion about credit card terms."

So far the CFPB has only been collecting complaints on credit cards. But as soon as Thursday, it plans to open up the process to mortgage and home loan grievances.

Next year, possibly in March, it will start collecting complaints about other bank products such as checking and savings accounts.

On Wednesday the agency said that between July 21 and October 21 it received 5,074 complaints from credit card customers. The complaints varied but at the top of the list were billing disputes, interest rate problems and fraud concerns.

The CFPB said it forwarded 4,254 of the complaints to card issuers. According to the issuers, 74 percent of those cases have been at least partially resolved, and in 71 percent the customer did not disagree, the agency said.

Complaints previously went to other banking regulators, depending on which one had oversight of the institution in question. The CFPB's goal is to create a centralized system to help resolve problems and collect data on complaints.

Created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law, the agency is charged with policing markets for products like credit cards and mortgages.

It has been heralded by consumer advocates but was opposed by the financial industry, which says it represents a regulatory overreach.

A proposal to publicly release a database of consumer complaints was issued by the agency on Wednesday. Under the proposal, most information about the cardholders would be withheld, but the bank or card issuer on the receiving end of the complaint would be named.

The industry has complained that this could provide an incomplete picture about their products.

The CFPB said that where there are differences of opinion over what the data represents about an issuer, it expects there will be a public debate that will allow consumers to "reach their own conclusions."

"We look forward to working with the bureau to implement effective consumer response systems to ensure they gather and report meaningful data that will help resolve complaints and identify trends," Ken Clayton, the American Bankers Association's chief counsel, said in a press release.

The CFPB is soliciting comments on its complaint database proposal through January 30. After that, it will have to issue a final proposal before the database is available to the public.

The Dodd-Frank law charges the agency with policing financial products offered outside the banking industry as well, but that power is on hold.

Until this issue is resolved, the agency will only collect complaints on bank products and will refer other inquiries to agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission.

The CFPB will not get its power over non-bank financial products until it has a leader, the director, confirmed by the Senate. Date is running CFPB in the interim.

President Barack Obama in July selected former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to lead the agency but his nomination has been caught in the crossfire of a political fight between Republicans and Democrats over how much authority the CFPB should have.

Senate Republicans are promising to block Cordray's nomination until changes are made to the agency's structure, such as having it run by a board rather than a director.

Senate Democrats and the Obama administration oppose the changes, arguing they would weaken the watchdog.

(Reporting by Dave Clarke; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and John Wallace)

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