WPF asks CFPB to keep consumer complaint data open to public

Consumer financial protection — WPF filed comments with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today asking it to make its consumer complaints database available for research.

In our comments, we supported CFPB making consumer complaints about credit card companies more publicly available.

WPF generally supports making information about consumer complaints public to the extent possible without violating the privacy of consumers or without discouraging consumers from making complaints. As an example of why this is important, we note that the WPF has made effective use of aggregate consumer complaint data from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel database to produce a map showing the location of all medical ID theft complaints. We relied very heavily on the city field for locating a criminal pattern. Without the city in the complaint, we could not have created this data visualization, and the data would have been much less useful, as zip code only does not narrow the information enough in rural areas, or in some cases, less populous states in general. See: http://www.worldprivacyforum.org/medicalidentitytheft-map.html.

Our pioneering work on this map showed for the first time a strong geographic clustering of medical identity theft in Florida, California (especially southern California), New York, Arizona, and Texas. The map offers useful information that allows consumers to evaluate medical identity theft risks, health care providers and insurers to make better choices about appropriate responses to health care fraud, and federal and state agencies to make more informed decisions about the best allocation of resources for investigation and prosecution of medical identity theft cases and health care fraud activities in general. This data offers a window on the medical identity theft threat, and it illustrates how third parties like the WPF take unused data from a federal agency and produce new information that the agency itself did not provide.

Having compiled the medical identity theft data, the WPF is well aware that the quality of the underlying data and non-random nature of the complaints limit the value of the resulting analysis. Indeed, on our website we take note of the limitations of the data, observing that “we see this map as one additional piece of information about the geography of a crime that is difficult to detect and analyze.” We cannot, however, allow the lack of data perfection to limit the use and analysis of the data that is available.

The CFPB appropriately takes note these general problems of the quality and representativeness of complaint data in its discussion of issues in its Federal Register notice. While we agree that any complaint data is far from perfect, it remains essential that data be available whenever possible. Everyone is free to comment on the shortcomings of any conclusions drawn from the data and to add additional data to the marketplace of ideas. However, if data is withheld because it is not perfect, important discussions may not occur at all or discussions will be more poorly informed when they do occur. We can tell you unambiguously that without the FTC Consumer Sentinel data that extremely important information about medical identity theft would never have been revealed, such as the geographic modalities of the crime. Additionally, our first report on medical ID theft in 2006 made use of Consumer Sentinel data, it was crucial to our documentation of this crime in what was the first-ever report on the issue.