CFPB Consumer Complaints Field Hearing: Testimony by Beth Givens, Executive Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (July 17, 2014, El Paso TX)

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) is a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy organization. We are 21 years old and are located in San Diego, California.

The PRC takes complaints and questions from the general public on a variety of informational privacy issues. These include: debt collection, financial privacy, social media, medical records, employment topics, and Social Security numbers, among others.

In 2013 we launched our Online Complaint Center that enables individuals to go through a directed process on our website in order to submit their complaints and questions.  Our mid- to long-term goal is to eventually post the narrative – the complaint description – on our website.

An additional goal has been to improve the quality of the privacy-related complaints that we receive.

Because we eventually want to post complaint narratives on our website – as an opt-in choice, of course – we are particularly concerned that the narratives contain no personal information.

So, at three different points in the complaint process, we remind the user to not include any personal information in the narrative. Before individuals clicks on the “Submit” button, they see a screen with a check box that asks them to confirm that they have not included personal information in the narrative. They cannot proceed to the “Submit” page until they have checked this confirmation box. This screen also alerts them to our privacy policy.

We have generally succeeded in making sure complaint narratives contain no personal information. But because individuals are often passionate about what they are complaining about – and because many do not read instructions thoroughly – we will carefully review each narrative before we post them online-- once we are actually set up to post them online.  And again, I emphasize, it is strictly opt in.

I would like to share one additional feature of our online complaint process that has worked well for us.

I mentioned that individuals are often quite passionate about their complaints. As a result, many narratives are lengthy. In addition to the narrative, which is capped at 3,500 characters, we precede the narrative box with a request for a complaint “heading,” or title. It’s limited to 100 characters.

We have found that individuals do quite well in getting to the nub of the matter in the 100-character header. The CFPB might want to explore this feature.

In closing, we have found that it is possible to obtain complaint narratives from the public that are devoid of personal information – and protective of privacy.

I congratulate the CFPB in the creation of your online complaint process. It is excellent. Having developed our own, which is by no means perfect, I realize how challenging it is.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

Panelist Questions:

Question asked of Beth Givens: What privacy considerations should inform the inclusion of consumer narratives in the database?

Reply:  That no individuals can be identified based on information in the narrative. Such information includes the identity of the complainant and any other individuals, including company representatives. And, that no financial account information is included, as well as no Social Security numbers, no financial account numbers, no driver’s license numbers, no nine-digit ZIPcode numbers, and no specific location information that gets down to the household or even block level.

Question asked of each panelist: What impact do you envision narrative publication having on consumer and financial institutions.

Givens’ response: In my response, I will focus on the impact on consumers who wish to submit complaints. Many consumers have difficulty finding the precise words to explain their situation clearly. The availability of narratives will enable such individuals to identify scenarios that match theirs, and help them describe their own situations better.

In preparing for this hearing, I spent some time on the CFPB website, particularly its list of complaints. The database has minimal descriptive information – just tags such as “fees,” “bill disputes,” “advertisements.” These do not adequately describe what the consumer has experienced. The narrative will add meat to those bare bones.