© Flickr/Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Consumer rights in the US are under threat at the very regulatory agency responsible for protecting them. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a database where consumers can get information about financial products and companies, and file complaints. But, Mick Mulvaney, appointed acting director of the agency by President Donald Trump, has repeatedly threatened to block the public’s access to it, as part of a worrying trend that is making the CFPB less transparent and less effective.

The database houses more than a million consumer complaints and more than 300,000 consumer files about debt collection, student loans, mortgages, and other lenders. The CFPB is required to receive consumer complaints and provide information to consumers. The database is one of the best ways to fulfill this obligation, even though making it public isn’t required by law.

Academics, watchdog groups, and the private sector rely on the database for research and reports. Since companies’ responses can be published too, it helps incentivize them to be responsible. Around 97% of the complaints published receive timely responses from the companies implicated.

Although some critics claim many complaints are frivolous, there is a vetting procedure each complaint must go through before being included in the database. Consumers must provide verifiable information. Each company is given notice of a complaint and has the opportunity to verify a commercial relationship with the individual and the chance provide a public response. About two-thirds of received complaints make it through this screening process and are published. 

Threats to block public access to the database are part of a larger and very harmful effort to make the CFPB less transparent. In a complaint “snapshot” published earlier this year, the CFPB omitted names of debt collection companies that drew the most complaints, a significant departure from earlier monthly reports. An independent analysis of the consumer complaint database revealed that one of the debt collection companies with the highest numbers of consumer complaints was Synchrony Financial, which has received more than 6,000 complaints since 2017. Its subsidiary CareCredit, a medical credit card company, was fined $34.1 million by CFPB in 2013 for unfair and deceptive credit card enrollment practices. The administration’s moves to reduce transparency will make it very hard to find out about such patterns. This is alarming because, as Human Rights Watch has previously documented, abusive debt collection thrives on lack of information and credible evidence.

The CFPB should reverse course and embrace the transparency that has been so central to the success and importance of its mission.