Feds solve problems for unhappy bank customers

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Got a beef with your bank and you can't get it resolved?

Don't sit there steaming. Complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the federal government's new financial watchdog.

The CFPB gets real relief for most people who file complaints about their bank, according to a new report from the advocacy group U.S. PIRG.

"The vast majority of complaints do get a response," said Laura Murray with U.S. PIRG's Education Fund. "Approximately 1 in 3 got some sort of tangible relief."

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The CFPB has been collecting consumer complaints about banks since last year. Those complaints are posted in a public Consumer Complaint Database after the company responds or after they have had the complaint for 15 calendar days, whichever comes first. The agency does not verify all the facts alleged in these complaints, but it does try to confirm a commercial relationship between the consumer and the company.

The agency posted nearly 19,000 complaints about bank accounts and services between March 2012 and July 2013, Most deal with checking account problems. For its report, U.S. PIRG analyzed this public information.

The U.S. PIRG study found:

  • 95 percent of complaints were closed through the process.
  • 28 percent of complaints about banking services processed by the CFPB ended with the consumer receiving some form of financial relief. That's more than 5,000 people who received monetary compensation to resolve their complaint. The median amount was $110.
  • 5 percent received non-monetary relief, such as adjusting terms of their account or correcting an error.
  • While banks respond to 95 percent of complaints, approximately 1 in every 5 resolutions is still disputed by the consumer.

It's no surprise that the nation's biggest banks—Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase—generated the most complaints.

But on a per-dollar basis, Minnesota-based TCF National Bank has the highest ratio of complaints to total deposits of any bank supervised by the CFPB—24.9 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. That's significantly higher than Sovereign Bank (9.1 complaints per billion of deposits) and Capital One Bank (6.5 complaints per billion) which ranked second and third.

TCF disputes the findings and calls PIRG's methodology "critically flawed and misleading."

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TCF believes the primary driver of complaints is the number of accounts, not the amount of deposits. In a statement to NBC News, the bank said it did so poorly because it has significantly more consumer accounts per billion of deposits than most other banks.

TCF noted that there were only 356 complaints for more than 2 million accounts over the 16-month period studied. During that time, TCF discontinued free checking which generated complaints and resulted in the return of free checking.

"TCF has been listening and responding to customer feedback long before it becomes part of the regulatory landscape," the statement said.

Analysts worried for bank earnings
Analysts worried for bank earnings

The nation's bankers also challenge PIRG's study.

"No serious analyst would use this data to draw conclusions," said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president at the American Bankers Association. "This is data that is unverified, unrepresentative, incomplete and potentially inaccurate."

Feddis went on to point out that the number of complaints is "minuscule" when you consider the number of bank accounts in the country and the billions of transactions that take place every day.

"Banks are doing a good job and responding to their customers," she said.

More than just bank complaints

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accepts complaints about a wide variety of financial service providers and products: mortgages, credit cards, student loans, auto loans, money transfer services, credit reports and debt collection. The agency recently handled its 200,000th complaint.

In some cases, the dispute resolution involves money. Other times it means correcting a problem, such as an error in a credit report that someone had been dealing with for years. In many cases, simply getting a clear response from the company resolves the issue.

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"Every complaint we receive is important because it helps us identify and prioritize problems," said Scott Pluta, assistant director of consumer response at the CFPB. "We know that if we begin to see a disturbing trend among the complaints we handle, we should consider allocating some of our limited resources to combat that particular problem."

The database may not be popular with the financial services industry, but it's "making a real difference in people's lives and in the marketplace," Pluta said.

How to file a complaint

You can submit complaints online or on the phone, by calling 855-411-2372 (toll-free) 8 a.m.-8 p.m. EDT Monday through Friday. (Español: 855-411-2372; TTY/TDD: 855-729-2372)

Complaints may also be submitted by toll-free fax (855-237-2392) or U.S. mail to:

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

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.