Credit Reporting Complaints

photo by Erin Stevenson O'Connor

The Huffington Post quoted me in The Real Reason Everyone Complains About Credit Reporting Agencies. It opens,

The most complained-about financial institutions aren’t banks or credit card companies. They’re credit reporting agencies — and by a wide margin.

In fact, the big three credit agencies topped the latest Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) monthly report. Equifax attracted an average of 1,470 complaints during a three-month period from May to July. Experian took second place with 1,272 complaints, and TransUnion had 1,202 complaints. As a category, all of the credit reporting agencies are up by about 30 percent from the same period a year ago.

By comparison, the most complained about bank, Citibank, had only an average of 922 complaints during the same period.

So why all the gripes? To answer that question, you have to take a closer look at a society that’s heavily dependent on credit and at the companies that determine how much credit each member of society gets. But the answer also reveals a broken system and a few workarounds that could help you avoid becoming another statistic.

The CFPB did not respond to a request for a comment about its complaint data. Neither did two credit reporting agencies, Experian and TransUnion. Equifax deferred to the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA), the trade association for the credit reporting industry.

Decoding the numbers

A CDIA representative suggested the government’s complaint numbers are inflated because they fail to distinguish between complaints and “innocuous” disputes.

“For example, consumers who are reviewing their credit reports for the first time might question an item they don’t recognize or understand and then lodge a complaint,” says Bill Mashek, the CDIA spokesman. “A consumer might also lodge a complaint against one of the credit reporting agencies when their issue is actually with another entity such as a lender.”

The credit agencies also say the government fails to verify any of the complaints; it simply reports them. And it has no way of weeding out potential errors, such as when consumers question an item they don’t recognize or understand on their credit report.

Consumers have a different perspective. They’re people like Peter Hoagland, a consultant from Warrenton, Va., whose homeowner insurance bill rose unexpectedly this year. He hadn’t made any claims, but soon discovered the reason: His credit rating insurance score taken a hit. He contacted his credit reporting agency. ” I could find no one to give me a credible explanation,” he says.

Hoagland contacted his insurance company and explained the problem, but the company stuck with its rate increase anyway.

“It feels to me that insurance companies are using these ratings as contrived reasons to raise rates,” he says. “They can’t cite claims I have made or increased risk with my home. So they hide behind these dubious insurance score ratings as justification to raise rates.”

It’s complicated

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School
, says stories like Hoagland’s are common because credit scores affect almost everyone. They’re also difficult to explain.

“The credit reporting agencies have a big impact on whether someone can get a mortgage to buy a house as well as on setting the interest rate that they will ultimately pay,” he says. “At the same time, they often act in mysterious ways in terms of what they include and do not include on their reports.”

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

  • BNY Mellon files a brief on writ for cert with the Supreme Court warning the potential for “warping” the residential mortgage-backed securities market if it overturns the Second Circuit’s decision finding that provisions of the Trust Indenture Act did not apply to the securities at issue.
  • Investors of Citibank file a class action in NY state court claiming that Citibank ignored toxic residential mortgage-backed securities causing $2.3 billion in losses.
  • Investors sue RAIT Financial Trust and its trustees alleging that the trust knew about subsidiary pocketing fees leading to a $21.5 million SEC settlement.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Reiss on Citigroup Settlement

Law360 quoted me in Feds Deploy Potent Bank Fraud Law In $7B Citi Pact (behind a paywall). It reads in part:

The U.S. Department of Justice’s $7 billion mortgage bond settlement with Citigroup Inc. on Monday may not have been possible without the help of a once-obscure fraud law that has become a legal magic wand for prosecutors.

Citigroup’s settlement included a $4 billion civil fine under the Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act, the largest such penalty in history. FIRREA was passed in the wake of the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis but has been dusted off in recent years as prosecutors have targeted major Wall Street banks that packaged and sold toxic residential mortgage-backed securities before the 2008 economic collapse.

The law’s government-friendly provisions are well-documented. FIRREA contains a 10-year statute of limitations, rather than the typical five-year window for fraud suits. That has permitted the government to comfortably sue banks over conduct that occurred in 2006 and 2007, when many of the shoddy loans implicated in the crisis were securitized. Prosecutors can use tolling agreements to keep potential claims alive even longer.

*     *     *

The sheer size of the government’s FIRREA fines thus far, combined with the lack of case law underpinning the statute, has placed banks and their defense counsel in a difficult negotiating position, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“The message for people in negotiations is: Expect to pay a lot, or else, the government is going to call your bluff,” Reiss said. “It’s the Wild West for civil penalties.”

Monday’s settlement relates to Citigroup’s due diligence on loans that were packaged into securities and sold to investors for tens of billions of dollars. According to an agreed-upon statement of facts, the bank “received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized.”

In one case, a Citigroup trader wrote an internal email questioning the quality of loans in mortgage-backed securities issued in 2007. The trader said that he “went through the diligence reports and think that we should start praying … I would not be surprised if half of these loans went down.”

The bank did not admit to breaking any particular law, and neither it nor any individual employees were criminally charged. At the same time, DOJ officials were quick to point out that the settlement did not release Citigroup or any individuals from potential criminal liability.

Reiss said the threat of criminal prosecution could become a hallmark of FIRREA cases, giving banks another cause for concern.

“That again demonstrates a lot of leverage on the side of the government,” Reiss said. “It’s a powerful tool to keep in your back pocket.”

Premature End to Foreclosure Review

Congressman Cummings (D), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has sent a letter to Congressman Issa, the Chairman of the Committee, regarding the Independent Foreclosure Review. It opens,

I am writing to request that the Committee hold a hearing on widespread foreclosure abuses and illegal activities engaged in by mortgage servicing companies.  I request that the hearing also examine why the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) appear to have prematurely ended the Independent Foreclosure Review (IFR) and entered into a major settlement agreement with most of the servicers just as the full extent of their harm was beginning to be revealed. (1)

It goes on to assert that “some mortgage servicing companies engaged in widespread and systemic foreclosure abuses, including charging improper and excessive fees, failing to process loan modifications in accordance with federal guidelines, and violating automatic stays after borrowers filed for bankruptcy.” (2) It concludes that it “remains unclear why the regulators terminated the IFR prematurely, how regulators determined the compensation amounts servicers were required to pay under the settlement, and how regulators could  claim that borrowers who were harmed by these servicers would benefit more from the settlement . . . than by allowing the IFR to be completed.” (2)

The letter raises a number of important concerns, but I will focus on just one — “how did the regulators arrive at the compensation amounts in the settlement?” (9) This particular settlement was for billions of dollars from BoA, PNC, JPMorgan and Citibank. This is an extraordinarily large sum, but the public is left with no sense of whether this sum is proportional to the harm done. I have raised this concern with other billion dollar settlements. As the federal government moves forward with these large settlements, it should carefully consider their expressive function — does the penalty fit the wrongdoing?  And if so, how was that calculated? People want to know.