Consumer complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were up 31% in the first five months of 2020, compared with the same period last year, and many of these new complaints specifically mention the coronavirus crisis.
The CFPB relays consumer complaints about loans, credit cards, bank accounts and other financial products to financial institutions. For people who are dissatisfied or otherwise frustrated with their direct interaction with a financial company, this complaint process can offer recourse, often within a few weeks. During a nationwide financial crisis, it stands to reason, these frustrations would run high.
On March 4, the CFPB received its first complaint mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. That first complaint was about canceled travel and the inability to get a refund despite global travel warnings. Over roughly the next three months, through May 31, the cutoff date used in this analysis, the agency received 1,309 complaints mentioning the pandemic.
Our analysis looked at all complaints filed with the CFPB from Jan. 1 through May 31, 2020, and posted to its database by June 1 at 9 a.m. EDT. These complaints are not necessarily representative of consumer experiences as a whole, but they tell interesting stories of hardship in uncharted financial territory.
In the first five months of 2020, the CFPB received 142,782 complaints, 31% more than in the first five months of 2019.
Complaint narratives hint at financial strain causes
When someone files a complaint with the CFPB, they go through a series of multiple-choice selections and enter a narrative describing their gripe. That narrative can be made public, if the complainant consents, giving us the opportunity to mine those narratives for certain words, sentiments and overall trends. If they don’t consent, the complaint basics — such as financial product, issue and associated company — are still published, minus the detailed description. Of the complaints filed through May 31, 2020, just 33% were published with a narrative.
By searching those narratives for words including "covid," "coronavirus" and a handful of related terms, we found 1,309 complaints specifically mentioning the pandemic. Although only a small portion of published complaints included a public narrative, considering the rise in overall complaints, it’s likely many of the others were also related to the financial impacts of the pandemic.
Among all complaints with narratives, those mentioning job loss, unemployment or a related set of synonyms were up 34% when compared with the same period last year.
Mortgage, credit card and credit reporting complaints most common
Having "incorrect information on your credit report" was the most commonly cited complaint issue in the first five months of 2020 and 2019. But among 2020 complaints explicitly mentioning "covid" or related terms, "struggling to pay mortgage" is the top issue — accounting for 16% of that subset.
Among pandemic-related complaints, more than one-quarter (26%) are tagged with "mortgage" as the primary financial product. In reading through those labeled as mortgage complaints, we found many consumers frustrated with the lack of relief provided by mortgage forbearance offers. Namely, the consumers were unhappy that lenders required full repayments of delayed installments — known as a balloon payment — at the conclusion of the forbearance period.
Take action: Borrowers seeking mortgage forbearance may be able to negotiate different terms with their lender if a balloon payment isn’t feasible. Some lenders may allow repayment of the forbearance amount across several months or tack it onto the end of the loan term, though this isn’t always the case. Loan modification is another relief tool. It restructures your mortgage terms entirely.
The second most commonly cited financial product in coronavirus-related complaints are credit or prepaid cards, accounting for 23%. Combing through complaints tagged with credit cards we found many people frustrated by credit card issuers closing inactive accounts with no warning.
Take action: Having a credit card canceled unexpectedly can eliminate one source of emergency funding in tough financial times. Unfortunately, credit card issuers aren't required to notify account holders before closing an inactive account. Occasionally using a credit card for a tank of gas or a trip to the grocery store can be enough to keep the account open and available when you need it most.
"Credit reporting, credit repair services or other personal consumer reports" is the third most common financial product category complained about in coronavirus-related narratives. Generally, these products are the most commonly complained about throughout the year, and while they account for just 20% of those explicitly citing the pandemic, they are 60% of the total complaints filed so far in 2020.
Reading through the narratives, we found many complaints centered on accounts being reported delinquent to credit bureaus despite being in forbearance or another payment modification program. Delinquent accounts on your credit report can make it more difficult to access new or increased lines of credit. Under the terms of the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March, participation in loan forbearances or other creditor hardship programs should not negatively impact the credit of someone whose account is otherwise in good standing.
Take action: When working with financial institutions, it’s important to ask explicitly whether suspended or late payments will be reported to the credit bureaus and to keep an eye on your credit reports for errors in the months afterward. Because of the pandemic, the CFPB has extended the time credit bureaus have to resolve such errors from 30 to 45 days.
Using the statistical programming language R and Google Sheets, we analyzed consumer complaints received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by the date a complaint was received. The full complaint database was downloaded at 9 a.m. EDT on June 1, 2020. Because complaints aren’t published on the database until a company responds (or 15 days after initial receipt, whichever comes first), complaints received before our cutoff date of May 31, 2020, will continue to be added to the database in months to come, so the totals will change.
Single complaint records could be duplicate issues, filed by a single consumer more than once. Because the complaints are anonymized, we did not account for this.
When searching for complaints specifically related to the coronavirus pandemic, we searched for the following terms: "coronavirus," "covid," "pandemic" and "quarantine." When searching for complaints specifically related to job loss, we searched for the following terms: "unemployment," "unemployed," "job loss," "laid off" and "lost job." All searches ignored letter case.