In a first by a federal financial regulator, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has launched a public database of consumer complaints about credit cards – including the name of the company issuing the card.

“No longer will consumer complaints only be known to the individual complainant, bank, regulator, and those in the public willing to pursue this information through the Freedom of Information Act,” said , CFPB chief of staff and acting assistant director, in an agency blog posted June 19.

“Instead this data-rich window into consumer financial issues will be widely available to everyone: developers, policymakers, journalists, academics, industry, and you. Our goal is to improve the transparency and efficiency of the credit card market to further empower American consumers,” he said.

The database, available for viewing on the agency’s website, is still in a test phase, and currently contains only credit card complaints and some a basic visualization tools.

The Bureau receives consumer complaints on a wide variety of products including credit cards, mortgages, student and other consumer loans, and other bank products (such as checking and savings accounts). It is proposing, however, to extend the database to include all other consumer financial products and services covered by the CFPB.

Pluta stressed that no personally-identifiable information, such as a consumer’s name, credit card number, or mailing address will be made available via the Consumer Complaint Database.

The agency also released a snapshot report yesterday describing the more than 45,600 complaints it has received since it began collecting them, including 16,840 credit card complaints, 19,250 mortgage complaints and 6,490 bank products complaints.

The report cited how the CFPB was able to help a 77-year-old blind Army veteran and retired businessman, identified as Ronald from Georgia, who believed he had paid off his mortgage but whose mortgage servicer claimed he still owed money on the home. Worried he’d lose his house, the Army veteran kept making payments. After the CFPB got involved at the end of 2011, the bank refunded his money, with 3% interest and sent him a check for $30,000.

Making more government data available

The new publicly-accessible database represents the latest example of federal government efforts to unlock the power of government data for the public’s use. Federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel and Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, have been publicly advocating for developers and the public to take greater advantage of data gathered by federal agencies.

In making this complaint data public on a searchable website, the agency joins a select crowd, said

She notes that two other government agencies publish public databases of consumer complaints: the National Hightway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A third agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collects consumer complaints through its Consumer Sentinel system but does not provide the raw data to the public, she said.

A number of financial industry groups filed comments objecting to CFPB’s new database, according to Watzman.

She quoted one such letter from the American Bankers Association, sent in January, which argued: “The complaint data are incomplete, unrepresentative, and unverified, and therefore, if released according to specific categories as proposed, [is] an unreliable and misleading source of information about customer experience and satisfaction with the value, reliability, and functionality of any financial product that will mislead consumers.’

Pluta contends that complaints go through a rigorous review process, however.

“When a consumer files a complaint, Consumer Response specialists review each one for completeness, jurisdiction, and non-duplication,” he said. “Complaints that meet these criteria are then forwarded to the appropriate company (bank or non-bank) for review and resolution. Companies are given 15 days to provide a substantive response to each consumer complaint, and are expected to resolve and close all but the most complicated complaints within 60 days.”

If the complaints are deemed worthy of investigation, based on “a handful of risk-based criteria,” according to Puta, such as the failure of a company to respond in a timely manner, the Consumer Response unit works closely with other parts of the Bureau to ensure potential violations are dealt with appropriately.

Throughout this process, consumers have the ability to log into the CFPB’s website to check the status of their complaint (and, when appropriate, dispute the resolution provided by the financial institution), following guidelines available in the Bureau’s policy statement.