The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2.5 million consumer complaints in 2014, according to its newly released Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. The annual report provides national and state-by-state data on consumer complaints received by the FTC; the total number of complaints (excluding do-not-call) reflected a nearly 19 percent increase from 2013.

The top five complaint categories consisted of identity theft (332,646 complaints, or about 13 percent of the total), debt collection (280,998, or about 11 percent), imposter scams (276,622, or about 11 percent), telephone and mobile services (171,809 or about 7 percent), and banks and lenders (128,107, or about 5 percent). It is noteworthy that identity theft and bank and lender complaints accounted for a smaller percentage of all complaints than in 2013, when those categories represented, respectively, 14 and 7 percent of total complaints.

For military consumers, identity theft was the top complaint category in 2014 and education complaints ranked seventh highest. In contrast, education complaints ranked as the 27th-highest category for consumers overall in 2014.

The Consumer Sentinel Network is an online database of consumer complaints maintained by the FTC. Other federal and state law enforcement agencies contribute to the database, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the offices of 14 state attorneys general. Private-sector organizations contributing data include the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which consists of all North American Better Business Bureaus.

Any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency can obtain access to the database by entering into a confidentiality and data security agreement with the FTC. Certain international law enforcement authorities are allowed access as well.

While the data only reflect “unverified complaints reported by consumers," regardless of merit, the report nevertheless could significantly affect the industries targeted by the complaints. The FTC and state attorneys general have long used consumer complaints to identify victims and potential targets for investigations, and the CFPB similarly considers complaints in prioritizing which entities to investigate.

Because industries receiving a large number of complaints are more likely to draw a regulator's attention, minimizing the number of consumers who complain to the FTC, CFPB, or other consumer watchdogs is an essential first step to reducing potential exposure. To accomplish this, it is important for companies to establish their own systems to track and resolve complaints. In its examination procedures, the CFPB specifically instructs its examiners to assess the quality of a company's complaints system.

Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Services Group is nationally recognized for its guidance in structuring and documenting new consumer financial services products, its experience with the full range of federal and state consumer credit laws, and its skill in litigation defense and avoidance. Members of the Group are helping companies prepare for CFPB examinations.

For more information, please contact Practice Leader Alan S. Kaplinsky at 215.864.8544 or kaplinsky@ballardspahr.com, John L. Culhane, Jr., at 215.864.8535 or culhane@ballardspahr.com, or Christopher J. Willis at 678.420.9436 or willisc@ballardspahr.com.


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