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Kenneth Harney: Mortgage complaint line brings attention to detail

Move over, Yelp. The federal government’s top consumer agency has just begun allowing mortgage borrowers to vent publicly – in full detail – about the bad experiences they’ve had with financial institutions.

Say your mortgage servicing company keeps harassing you with phone calls about the timeliness of your payments, even though you consistently send them within the “grace period” specified in the mortgage documents.

Or say your bank is proceeding to foreclose, even though you’ve been negotiating to modify your loan. Not only does the bank inexplicably keep losing the documents you send them but every time you call to try to rectify the situation, you’re shifted to new personnel, none of whom seem competent or sympathetic. You want to tear your hair out, you’re so angry.

So here’s the good news: Now you can rant and rave about this poor service for all to see. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is boosting the firepower of its complaint system, opening it up to include the narrative details that consumers are often eager to share – if they just had a place to express them.

For several years the bureau has run a national database where it posts complaints against banks, mortgage companies, student loan firms, credit agencies and other players. It’s been useful for many consumers, but the complaints it displays offer none of the details about what transpired. Instead, it’s rather dry and colorless: You get squeezed into a category – mortgage servicing complaint, problem with a reverse mortgage, whatever – but no one really gets a taste of the pain and frustration that you went through. The date of your complaint is noted along with your ZIP code, plus a brief description of whether the company resolved your problem.

Under CFPB’s expanded system, consumers can opt to have their complaints posted publicly, after the financial institution confirms that they are indeed customers. Your name and other identifying information will be scrubbed from the narrative before it ever goes online.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray said adding narratives to the existing complaint system should help “shed light on the full consumer perspective behind a complaint. Narratives humanize the problems consumers face in the marketplace.” Whether consumers opt to post a public narrative or not, they will still be able to avail themselves of the bureau’s ongoing service: Once they file a complaint with the bureau, companies will have to respond within 15 days and are expected to “close all but the most complicated complaints within 60 days.” The first batch of narratives are not expected to be posted for several months, allowing banks and others to gear up for this new feature.

Since inaugurating the complaint database system, the CFPB has handled nearly 560,000 complaints. As of the end of June, 34 percent of all complaints had to do with mortgages – the largest of any category, followed by debt collectors. Of mortgage complaints, 84 percent concerned problems with servicing – the handling of mortgage payments, escrows, transfers of accounts and modifications of loan terms, among other issues.

Financial industry groups are unhappy about the bureau’s plan to add narratives to complaints. David H. Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said it “doesn’t ensure that consumer complaints that the CFPB posts are valid (and) does not give financial institutions an equal opportunity to respond.” Richard Hunt, CEO and president of the Consumer Bankers Association, told me that the narratives amount to an unfair public “shaming” of banks with no verification by the bureau that consumer complaints are legitimate.

Bottom line: Your mortgage company or bank may not like it, but if you have a complaint and want to spell out what happened, the government is now ready to share your narrative. Just go to www.consumerfinance.gov and tell your story.