Long before she showed Scott Brown the door and won Teddy Kennedy’s senate seat back for the Democrats, Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren had an idea for a consumer financial agency that was on the side of the “little guy.” In the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, Professor Warren got her wish. The Democratic Congress established the brand new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (CFPB) President Obama then appointed Professor Warren to accomplish the Herculean task of setting it up. On the White House website Professor Warren wrote:
“The new consumer bureau is based on a pretty simple idea: people ought to be able to read their credit card and mortgage contracts and know the deal. They shouldn’t learn about an unfair rule or practice only when it bites them—way too late for them to do anything about it. The new law creates a chance to put a tough cop on the beat and provide real accountability and oversight of the consumer credit market. The time for hiding tricks and traps in the fine print is over. This new bureau is based on the simple idea that if the playing field is level and families can see what’s going on, they will have better tools to make better choices.”
When it came time to appoint a permanent director for the new Bureau, the Republicans had taken over the House, and in the Senate they were filibustering everything and everybody President Obama supported. Elizabeth Warren clashed with House Republicans on the oversight committee and irritated Senate Republicans, 44 of whom threatened to veto any candidate for Director because the position, as Professor Warren had set it up, had too much power. They sure as hell weren’t going to give it to her! In the end, President Obama dodged that battle and chose another candidate for Director for the CFPB, but for me, it will always be her baby.
Although I admired Elizabeth Warren for her victory, I never expected to use the new bureau myself. When it comes to credit card companies and banks I feel have wronged me, I am much more likely to “let it go” than to “fight city hall.” Then Fifth Third Bank screwed with me. They put transactions on my statement they didn’t really make, and then they charged me $280 in fees for their made up transactions. Trying to convince them to have a bank examiner look into the transactions was futile. If it was on the statement, it must be true.
Tossing and turning in frustration, I asked myself, “What would Elizabeth Warren do?” It was then that I remembered her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Not knowing what to expect, at 2:45 in the morning, I found the CFPB website complaint page and clicked on the “bank complaints” link.
I was asked to write a summary of my problem in 4000 characters or less. Fortunately I have plenty of Twitter experience. I explained that I suspected the company to which Fifth Third Bank outsources its bill payment service, had falsified entries to cover up a mistake they had made, and that their cover-up had cost me undeserved fees. There was a way to upload supporting documents, but it was the middle of the night, so I merely mentioned I had screen shots of my account with the suspect transactions, and correspondence with the bank if they needed them. The form then asked what result I wanted, and I said I wanted wanted my $280 back. That was an oversight on my part. I should have asked for my money and an apology. I then gave them my name, address and an email address to set up an account. That was all there was to it.
I figured I would hear something back around 2020. It’s the government right?
Wrong. Shame on my pessimism. I should have had more faith in Elizabeth Warren. The agency reviewed my complaint, and sent me an email the very next day saying they had submitted it to Fifth Third Bank. The email directed me to my own account page that would show all the correspondence among the parties. When Fifth Third Bank responded two days later, CFPB notified me immediately by email of the new development.
Fifth Third Bank replied that they were looking into my complaint. CFPB added the information that they had 60 days to respond. A week later, the bank refunded $280 – all the fees they had charged me.
I was disappointed that there was no apology nor explanation, had they been forthcoming with those niceties, I might still be a customer. Their letter to me and the CFPB made it seem like they were refunding my money because I was a good customer, not that they had made an error, but I know in my heart they finally looked where I told them to look and found their error. What banks love is money, so I do take some pleasure in knowing even if they didn’t say “sorry,” I at least pricked them in a place that stung.
If you have an unresolved problem with a financial institution, here is an overview of the complaint process, and the place to get started. If you don’t need it now, I urge you to bookmark it for the next time you have been wronged in the wallet. Besides banks, the CFPB also accepts complaints about credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and credit reporting. They work quickly, and they get results.
Using Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was such an unexpectedly positive experience that I wanted to share it with you, and remind you of this resource. But mostly, I wanted to say thank you to Senator Elizabeth Warren. What a wonderful gift you have given us!
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.