Top consumer cop: Mortgages, debt collection top complaints

More than 230,000 complaints have poured into the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the past two years, with mortgages and debt collection topping the list of grievances.

But CFPB Director Richard Cordray told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview that he wants Americans to complain more.

“I do want your Yahoo Nation to know that they can and should file complaints with us about problems with mortgages, credit cards, student loans, auto loans,” he said.

The independent federal agency received 600 complaints, mostly about credit cards, in its first month. But it soon added other categories for unhappy consumers, and now the protests are pouring in at a good clip — 10,000-12,000 per month through and by phone at (855) 411-CFPB (2372).

Once a complaint is filed, the CFPB passes it on either to the company concerned or to another government agency. Companies have 15 days to respond to the consumer and the agency, and must address most beefs within 60 days.

“We are eager to have their complaints and hear what their problems are,” Cordray told Yahoo. “That helps inform our work and it also gives us a chance to get something back for them if that’s appropriate.”

“Get something back”? Yep. Complaints are one of the tools CFPB has used to get about $750 million back to consumers since it became operational in 2011.

Want to know what states and companies are the biggest sources of complaints? The agency compiles that data here.

What tops the list? “It was definitely mortgages for a long while. We recently added debt collection,” Cordray said. “It’s pretty clear to me that’s going to end up being our leading source of complaints.”

In its brief history, CFPB has attracted other kinds of complaints — notably from the financial sector it regulates and from Republicans in Congress who warn that tighter rules could make it harder for low-income Americans to borrow money. GOP lawmakers pounded away at the agency on a range of issues, including its independence and accountability.

“I listen to all the concerns and complaints because we need to hear those. As a new agency, we need to be totally on our game,” Cordray said. “Some of them do turn out to be insubstantial or mistaken, but where we can fix things, we want to do it.”

Republicans who initially blocked Cordray’s nomination (he was finally confirmed in July) have criticized the CFPB — but the relationship has improved, he says.

“I think their view of me has changed a little bit. I think they’re more reconciled to the consumer bureau, they’re seeing more value,” Cordray said. “It’s their constituents who are the American consumer — and if we can help them with their mortgage problems, with credit card problems, with cleaning up abuses of various kinds, that’s good for everybody.”

What about over-regulation? Cordray described his agency’s role as erecting “guardrails.”

“We recognize we don’t want to protect consumers to the point where they can’t get the opportunities that they want,” he said. “We’re mindful of that balance."

But he blamed obstacles to borrowing on “the irresponsible practices that blew up the mortgage market, blew up the economy and completely dried up credit for a period of several years.”

Cordray said his agency wants to see “systemic change” in the way financial institutions interact with the public. “We don’t plan to be spending our lives whacking a mole here, whacking a mole there,” he said.

He pointed to new rules meant to make mortgage providers ensure that borrowers can repay the loans and to “clean up” frequently difficult relations between lenders and their customers.

Cordray praised Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the architect of the CFPB, as “the leading consumer advocate of our time.” But he clammed up when asked whether she should run for president.

“You’re not going to get an answer out of me on that. That’s up to her,” he said.

So when is the last time cautious Cordray wasted money? And on what?

Deflecting the question, Cordray described how he spent the roughly $45,000 he won on "Jeopardy!" He paid taxes, paid his father back for a law school loan, and bought a used car.

“It was pretty boring,” he said.

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