Since it started accepting complaints about banks 18 months ago, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has helped thousands of irate customers settle disputes over their accounts, with roughly 1 out of 4 complaints resulting in monetary relief, a just-released analysis by a consumer group shows.
"Thanks to the CFPB's complaints database, consumers who get ripped off or misled by their banks can make their voices heard and get satisfaction," said Ashley Afranie-Sakyi, an associate at Philadelphia-based PennPirg.
PennPirg's report, which analyzed the bureau's online complaint database, revealed which financial institutions were drawing the most complaints and what people were griping about.
Overall, the bureau -- created in the wake of the financial crisis as a watchdog against abusive and unfair financial practices -- fielded some 19,000 complaints about bank accounts and services since March 2012.
Of those complaints, roughly 5,000 resulted in banks making payments to settle the dispute, PennPirg said. Although the database does not include specific amounts, the bureau previously reported the median payout as $110.
In addition, nearly 1,000 consumers had their complaints closed with some form of nonmonetary compensation, such as a bank contacting a credit bureau to request a change in a credit report.
In about 20 percent of cases, consumers disputed the settlements, PennPirg said.
Nearly half of complaints that involved a customer's funds being low (such as overdraft and bounced check fees) were resolved with monetary relief, compared with 28 percent of all complaints.
Checking accounts were the most common trigger for a complaint, accounting for 78 percent of the total.
Among other categories, 7 percent involved savings accounts, 6 percent involved certificates of deposit, 1 percent were about cashing a check without an account, and the remaining 8 percent involved "other" financial services or products.
PennPirg also looked at which banks had the most dissatisfied customers.
Twenty-five U.S. banks accounted for more than 90 percent of complaints, led by Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. Those three banks also are the nation's biggest banks based on deposits.
Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, the seventh-largest deposit bank nationwide, drew the fourth-highest number of complaints, according to the data.
PennPirg also ranked banks based on the ratio of complaints per billion dollars of deposits as a way to factor out size.
On that basis, TCF National, Sovereign Bank and Capital One were the top three most complained-about banks, followed by RBS Citizens and GE Capital Retail.
PNC ranked No. 7 in that list, in a tie with First Niagara and Fifth Third.
A bank's size as well as its mix of corporate and consumer customers might have some impact on the type of complaints submitted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In response to a query, PNC spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel said, "PNC's own measures of customer satisfaction are very high, and we work continuously to improve our response to customer concerns. The report itself offers little real insight because it simply reflects the relative market position and profile of each bank."
Although PennPirg praised the bureau's efforts, it also offered suggestions for improvement, such as making the consumer complaint database more user friendly by adding more narrative information and details on how complaints were resolved, the reasons for and outcome of any disputes, and specific monetary relief amounts.
PennPirg also suggested the bureau develop free smartphone apps for consumers to access information about how to complain about a company and how to review complaints in the database.
PennPirg's report, "Big Banks, Big Complaints," is available at www.pennpirg.org.
To submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, visit www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint or call 1-855-411-2372. Besides bank accounts, the agency takes complaints about credit cards, credit reports, debt collection, money transfers, mortgages, vehicles, and student or consumer loans.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.