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Marylanders aren't shy about complaining

Marylanders are big complainers.

At least when it comes to the financial services they receive.

Maryland ranked No. 2 in the nation in mortgage complaints per capita, second only to New Hampshire, for grievances lodged with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The state came in third for grousing about credit cards and placed fifth for gripes about banks and service.

The CFPB's database, launched toward the end of 2011, catalogs thousands of gripes about banking, credit cards and mortgages that the newfound agency has received. The agency forwards complaints — ranging from disputes about billing and interest rates on credit cards to incorrect information on credit reports and problems with loan payments — to the businesses involved. Not all complaints are resolved.

Why are Marylanders more motivated to complain? Experts point to the state's higher education levels, relative wealth and proximity to the do-gooders in Washington, D.C.

"Education level predicts complaint behavior, and this is a very well-educated area," said Rebecca Ratner, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

The more educated consumers are the more likely they are to feel that they can affect outcomes and know what steps to take to complain, Ratner said.

Consumers here also are more aware of the new agency because of our proximity to Washington, the CFPB's home, she said.

Indeed, Washingtonians also are big whiners, ranking No. 1 in complaints about bank accounts and credit cards and coming in third for mortgage grievances.

Consumers near the Beltway also may have more faith in the government to correct problems, given that they are likely to have friends and neighbors who work for Uncle Sam, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School with an expertise in consumer finance.

"The federal government has a face when you live in Maryland and D.C.," he said.

Maryland also has the highest median income in the country. Moneyed consumers, Reiss said, are more inclined to speak up when there's a problem.

"Wealthier people are more likely to expect more from financial institutions," he said.

They also know that financial institutions are regulated and can be held accountable, he said.

Tisa Silver-Canady, 34, of Bowie turned to the bureau last month after a used car she purchased developed problems. She was told by the dealer she couldn't return the car and get out of the loan. Getting nowhere with either the dealer or the bank, she filed a complaint with the CFPB and posted on Twitter that she had a customer service issue with the lender.

The bank responded in about three hours to her tweet, and its representative said the CFPB had forwarded her grievance, too. The upshot: Silver-Canady returned the car, the loan was canceled and she received a refund.

Silver-Canady, an assistant director of financial education and wellness at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, credits the CFPB and Twitter for the happy ending.

"When someone sees you can take a complaint to this level, there is a level of seriousness that they begin to treat you with," she said.

The CFPB has been officially open for business for about two years. It started out by accepting complaints about credit cards and gradually added other financial products. Complaints are updated nightly to the agency's database. As of Monday morning, it had 116,910 complaints, including nearly 4,100 from Maryland.

More than half of the Maryland's complaints — 2,363 — involve mortgages, including modifications and foreclosures. Nearly 700 others involve credit card issues, such as interest rates, billing disputes and identity theft.

Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland for the past seven years, said she's not surprised that Marylanders are among the top gripers.

Marylanders' affluence means they are more likely to use computers and smartphones, Barnett said. And those are the very tools being targeted increasingly by con artists seeking to wheedle credit card numbers and bank account information from consumers, she said.

Barnett's office receives about 1,000 new complaints each month — a figure that has remained steady in good and bad economic times.

What has changed, she said, is the response from businesses.

Several years ago, businesses often generously granted a full refund to a disgruntled customer to quickly resolve the problem and move forward, she said. The recession changed that.

"Businesses drew a line in the sand and were not as accommodating when cash flow was an issue," she said.

As the economy improves, businesses once more are opening the purse strings to satisfy unhappy customers, but still not as much as before, Barnett said.

The CFPB takes complaints from consumers on mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, student loans, credit reporting, money transfers, and vehicle or personal loans. The agency will begin taking complaints about debt collection this summer and payday loans later this year, said Scott Pluta, assistant director with the agency's Office of Consumer Response.

If the grievance is outside the CFPB's jurisdiction, the agency will forward it to the appropriate regulator. Otherwise, the agency will forward the complaint to the lender or business, which has 15 days to respond and 60 days to close the matter, Pluta said. Consumers can track their complaints' progress online.

Pluta said consumers can use the complaint database — which lists the businesses being complained about and how the matter was resolved — to decide which companies deserve their business.

The CFPB also uses the database, taking note when companies don't respond to consumers or appear involved in some questionable activities that might violate regulations, Pluta said. These cases can be referred to the agencies' supervision and enforcement division.

Even though the CFPB provides much more data about complaints than other government agencies do, Laura Udis, senior financial services advocate for the Consumer Federation of America, said she would like to see more details about the stories behind complaints and resolutions, as well as how the CFPB's supervision and enforcement arm uses the information.

Still, the database can be useful to consumers, Udis said.

"The more information about companies that consumers can see before taking out a mortgage or considering a credit card, the better," she said. "That sort of comparison shopping is always helpful."

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

How to complain to the CFPB

Got a gripe about credit cards, private student loans, mortgages or bank accounts? Let the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau know:

Online: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint

Phone: 855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD number at 855-729-2372;

Fax: 855-237-2392

Mail: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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