New federal consumer agency wants to hear from you

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau uses social media to connect with consumers

April 04, 2011|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

Corinne Cooper wants something done about insurers raising homeowners' premiums based on credit scores. Robert Kane advocates for more protections when consumers deal with cellphone and Internet providers. And Shane Algarin recommends making it harder for thieves to use stolen credit cards.

These are some of the hundreds of suggestions pouring into the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The federal agency is still setting up. But it launched a website in early February to gather consumers' input and is reaching out to them on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, too.

"The site is not like any other government site I have seen," says Eric Jones, a vice president with R2Integrated, a digital marketing and Web technology firm in Baltimore. "I'll admit that's nice."

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created by last year's Wall Street reform law. It will take over consumer protection duties from seven government agencies, including the Federal Reserve and Office of Thrift Supervision, on July 21.

For too long, consumer protection has been split among many agencies, and it wasn't always their prime concern. Sometimes consumer protection even could be in conflict with an agency's role. If your mission is maintaining the safety and soundness of banks, can you truly advocate for pro-consumer practices that could erode lenders' profits?

The bureau will have the power to write regulations and enforce federal consumer laws. This is scary to many businesses, whose supporters in Congress are trying to weaken the agency before it gets started.

But if you have ever been burned by unfair credit terms or deceived by a lender, this is your agency. And one of the best ways to support it is to make useful recommendations on problems it should tackle.

And the bureau is encouraging consumers to engage via social media.

"The CFPB's initial online efforts are focused on engaging the American people early in the process of building the consumer bureau and setting its first priorities," says Jen Howard, the bureau's spokeswoman.

As of March 1, the bureau had received 300 complaints, about half of them about mortgages and home loans. Additionally, consumers have made nearly 1,000 suggestions.

Some issues raised by consumers, such as legalese in credit card agreements, are addressed by bureau staffers via YouTube videos.

"It looks to me [like] they are connecting with people and are being responsive," says J.D. Roth, editor of, a personal finance blog.

Roth also gives the bureau kudos for letting critics weigh in.

Some critics object to the fact that Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor setting up the bureau, didn't go through a Senate confirmation to become the director. President Barack Obama sidestepped a confirmation battle by appointing Warren as an assistant to the president and adviser to the Treasury secretary.

Lori Hoeksema, a mortgage originator from Michigan, has frequently commented on the bureau's Facebook posts to criticize the $60 million spent so far to launch the bureau.

"I'm not a fan of the bureau," Hoeksema said in a telephone interview. "It will end up costing a lot of money … and it's not going to have a lot of impact on consumers."

But even Hoeksema concedes that she doesn't know of any other government agency that opens itself up to consumers like this.

"It's great we can air our concerns," she says.

One of the most popular features on the site is a calendar of Warren's schedule. That's understandable, given the high interest in reality TV shows, says Jones of R2Integrated.

"They want to see inside someone else's life," he says. "They think it's more interesting than their own."

The calendar is updated monthly, and you can click on an entry to get a few details. On March 28, for instance, Warren met with Jill Biden — the vice president's wife — about the office of servicemembers affairs at 4:15 p.m., met with ING Direct's president at 5:15 p.m. and then attended a financial literacy dinner at the Treasury with nearly a dozen CEOs.

Jones says other government agencies are trying to figure out how to use social media but are constrained by privacy or homeland security issues. That makes the bureau's embrace of social media unusual for a government agency, he says.

"There is a personality to the site, which is unlike most government sites," Jones says. "They are using it conversationally, and that's what it's meant for."

But this effort will be successful in the long run only if the bureau can keep the conversation going, Jones says.

So, get in on the conversation. And help the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau do its job.

How to reach the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau online

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