According to its newly-released Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, the FTC received complaints from 2.68 million consumers in 2017, a decrease from 2016 when 2.98 million consumers submitted complaints. The annual report, which does not include do-not-call complaints, provides national and state-by-state data on consumer complaints received by the FTC. While the number of complaints declined, consumers reported losing a total of $905 million to fraud in 2017, which was $63 million more than in 2016.
Despite the use of the term “complaints” in the FTC’s press release and numerous references to “complaints” in the new annual report, the new report states that it refers to “consumer reports” rather than “complaints” because “[o]ften, people make these reports after they have experienced something problematic in the marketplace, avoided a loss, and decided to alert others.”
Debt collection was the most-reported category in 2017. Identity theft was the second-most reported category in 2017, with credit card fraud the most common type of identity theft reported and tax fraud the second most common type. Imposter scam reports, which the FTC describes as reports about someone pretending to be a trusted person to get consumers to send money or give personal information, was the third-most reported category in 2017.
The other two “top-five” report categories in 2017 were telephone and mobile services (fourth) and banks and lenders (fifth). For military consumers, identity theft was the top report category in 2017.
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 CFPB and the offices of 20 state attorneys general (who are listed on page 86 of the report). 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 also allowed access.
While the data only reflect ”unverified reports filed 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 Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s appointee as CFPB Acting Director has indicated that the CFPB will continue to use complaints in setting its priorities.
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. CFPB examination procedures specifically instruct examiners to assess the quality of a company’s complaints system.