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Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick the day before Rhode Island's presidential primary in April 2016.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick the day before Rhode Island's presidential primary in April 2016. (Steve Szydlowski/The Providence Journal/TNS)

The Trump administration has never been shy about expressing its disdain for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in general and the agency's complaint database in particular.

While he was in charge of the consumer agency, before becoming President Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney questioned the legal requirement that he provide a forum for consumers' complaints about financial firms.

"I don't see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government," he said at a banking industry conference last year. "I don't see anything in here that says that I have to make all of those public."

After months of speculation that the CFPB might shut down the complaint database, the bureau announced a different approach on Wednesday.

The complaints will remain accessible to the public.

But they shouldn't necessarily be trusted.

"That seems to be what they're trying to say without actually saying it," said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"They're going to keep the database up, but they're saying that the complaints are not representative of the marketplace," he told me.

The CFPB announced that it was making "several enhancements" to the complaints database, including "modified disclaimers to provide better context to the published data."

"Complaints are not necessarily representative of all consumers' experiences with a financial product or company," the complaints website prominently declares.

"We don't verify all the allegations in complaint narratives," it says. "Unproven allegations in consumer narratives should be regarded as opinion, not fact."

Financial firms overseen by the CFPB have griped for years that it was unfair to post consumers' complaints online. They said this could give the impression that the companies don't actually have customers' best interests at heart.

Oh, hi, Wells Fargo! Thanks for joining us.

Since Trump took office, industry groups have pushed for the CFPB to keep consumers' complaints to itself. Many of the nearly 2 million complaints submitted to the bureau involve problems with loans, debt collection and questionable fees.

Kathy Kraninger, the former White House official who now runs the bureau, said in a statement that the CFPB took industry feedback to heart.

"After carefully examining and considering all stakeholder and public input, we are announcing the continued publication of complaints with enhanced data and context that will benefit consumers and users of the database while addressing many of the concerns raised," she said.

"The continued publication of the database, along with the enhancements, empowers consumers and informs the public."

No one at the bureau responded to my request for further comment.

Mierzwinski speculated that CFPB officials concluded they'd lose a court fight if they dropped public access to consumer complaints. The database, after all, is required by law.

"So instead, they're making it look like the complaints aren't statistically valid," Mierzwinski said.

Let's be real clear about this: A searchable database of complaints regarding some of the country's leading businesses is an important consumer tool.

Not only does it assist people in researching companies or understanding that their problems may not be unique, but it also helps hold financial firms accountable for dubious practices.

While it's unclear how many complaints have led to official enforcement actions, the CFPB says 97% of complaints "get timely responses" from companies.

The bureau slapped Wells Fargo with a $100-million fine several years ago after the bank was found to have opened millions of accounts without customers' permission.

It pasted Wells with a separate $1-billion fine last year related to the bank's mortgage and auto-loan businesses.

Most major financial institutions have been penalized by the CFPB at one point or another for treating consumers unfairly.

Virginia O'Neill, vice president of regulatory compliance and policy for the American Bankers Assn., said consumer feedback is valuable, "but only if that feedback is trustworthy and reliable."

The association "has long expressed concern that the publication of unverified consumer complaints may mislead consumers by introducing unreliable information into the market," she said.

Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Assn., called the changes to the database "an important first step in helping financial institutions better serve their customers and ensuring consumers' needs are still heard."

These immediate seals of approval from the banking industry should be sufficient to prompt wariness from consumers.

Yelp and other online review sites are far from trustworthy. But they're a great starting point in making decisions about purchases of goods and services.

The CFPB's database serves the same function, allowing people to make better-informed decisions about the firms they do business with.

By casting doubt on its own complaints, the bureau is basically saying, "Move along, nothing to see here."

The more industry-friendly database comes as the Trump administration seeks a declaration from the U.S. Supreme Court that the CFPB is unconstitutional.

Trump wants the court to rule that he can fire the bureau's director for any reason. Under current law, the director only can be removed for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office."

The case being cited by the White House involves a California law firm under investigation by the CFPB for its sales pitches to indebted consumers.

The firm claims it can't be called to order by the bureau because the agency violates the constitutional separation of powers - that is, it's not sufficiently accountable to the president.

In fact, the CFPB director's independence from presidential interference was deliberate. As with the Federal Reserve, the idea when the bureau was created in 2010 was that it would be free of political meddling.

Mierzwinski said the administration's court filing is just the latest attempt "to weaken the bureau and make it a creature of the president."

Kraninger, the CFPB director, said in a speech this week that she does not oppose the changes sought by the White House.

In other words, she's good with Trump firing her at any time for any reason.

Which tells you who's calling the shots here.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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