OCC Consumer Assistance:

Process Is Similar to That of Other Regulators but Could Be Improved by Enhanced Outreach

GAO-06-293: Published: Feb 23, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 27, 2006.

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In January 2004, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)--the federal regulator of national banks--issued rules concerning the extent to which federal law preempts state and local banking laws. Some state officials and consumer groups expressed concerns about a perceived loss of consumer protection. GAO identified (1) how OCC's complaint process compares with that of other federal bank regulators, (2) how complaint information informs OCC's supervision of national banks, and (3) issues that consumer advocates and state officials have raised about OCC's consumer protection efforts and OCC's responses to the issues.

Overall, OCC's process for handling consumer complaints--carried out primarily by its Customer Assistance Group (CAG)--is similar to that of the other three federal bank regulators. However, unlike two of them, OCC lacks a mechanism to gather feedback from consumers it assists that could help it and the banks improve service to consumers. All of the regulators resolve the majority of complaints by providing or clarifying information for bank customers; less frequently, the regulators investigate and determine that a bank or customer erred. OCC annually handles more complaints than the other regulators, likely reflecting its position as the supervisor of banks with the majority of the nation's bank assets. OCC's complaint volume has not increased appreciably since it issued the preemption rules. OCC, in accordance with federal requirements for agencies to measure how they are fulfilling goals related to serving the public, measures the percentage of complaints it resolves within 60 days, a target other federal bank regulators also use. In reporting its performance, however, OCC includes data on its response to consumers' inquiries, which typically take less time, thereby overstating its performance on timeliness of responses to complaints. OCC's bank examiners use consumer complaint information collected by CAG to plan or adjust examinations. CAG staff and examiners communicate regularly regarding specific complaints or complaint volume and coordinate these efforts to provide consistent messages when discussing consumer-related issues with bank officials. In addition, complaint data inform OCC policy guidance to banks, often addressing potential compliance and safety and soundness risks banks face. CAG also provides feedback to banks, focusing on complaint trends and potential risks that may impact the banks' compliance with consumer protection laws or other issues. Many of the state officials and consumer advocates GAO contacted during visits to four states, as well as some representatives of national organizations, nevertheless remain concerned about OCC's commitment and capacity to address consumer complaints--especially given their perception that the rules effectively ended protections provided by state laws and processes. Specific concerns these officials cited include an inability to obtain information on complaint outcomes, the fact that OCC handles complaints from a single location, and the adequacy of CAG's resources. OCC has taken actions addressing some of these concerns. The agency views itself as a neutral arbiter and continues to provide an avenue for consumers to file complaints related to national banks. OCC recently hired additional CAG staff and has begun working with a third-party vendor to expand telephone service from 7 to 12 hours a day. GAO noted that some officials and advocates contacted were unaware of OCC's process for handling consumer complaints and the assistance it can provide.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our 2006 report, we recommended that OCC develop and implement a feedback mechanism to receive input and measure satisfaction of bank customers who have used the services of its Customer Assistance Group (CAG) in order to identify ways to improve its process for handling consumer complaints and inquiries. The CAG conducted its first customer satisfaction survey in late 2006. According to a January 2007 report summarizing this effort, OCC indicated that the survey captured information on customer perceptions of services from the CAG, including customers who used the CAG's call center as well as customers who had gone through the written complaint process. The survey results indicated that the public who used the CAG's call center services rated the initial point of contact at CAG higher than the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is a uniform, cross-industry/government average of customer satisfaction. The satisfaction ratings overall were lower for the written complaint process, but those consumers who received the relief they requested reported high overall satisfaction with their CAG experience, while those who did not obtain their requested relief were less satisfied. According to the Deputy Ombudsman, Customer Assistance, OCC plans to perform a CAG satisfaction survey each year.

    Recommendation: To identify ways to improve its process for handling consumer complaints and inquiries and its efforts to better inform, educate, and serve bank customers, the Comptroller of the Currency should develop and implement a feedback mechanism to receive input and measure satisfaction of bank customers who have used CAG services.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As noted in its fiscal years 2006-2007 annual reports, at our recommendation, OCC revised reporting on the consumer complaints measure and related workload indicators to exclude inquiries and appeals. This correction ensures that OCC is presenting clearer and more accurate information to the public on CAG's performance.

    Recommendation: To identify ways to improve its process for handling consumer complaints and inquiries and its efforts to better inform, educate, and serve bank customers, the Comptroller of the Currency should revise the data publicly reported on timeliness to reflect complaints resolved within the 60-day goal separately from data reported on inquiries resolved within the time frame.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our 2006 report, we recommended OCC develop and implement a comprehensive plan to inform bank customers, consumer advocates, state attorneys general, and other appropriate entities of OCC's role in handling consumer inquiries or complaints about national banks. In that spirit, OCC has taken steps to inform customers and other appropriate entities of its services. For example, in an effort to facilitate communication and customer service between OCC and relevant state banking regulatory agencies, in November 2006, OCC and the Conference of State Bank Supervisors together wrote a model Memorandum of Understanding for Sharing Consumer-Complaint Information designed to be used as the basis for individual agreements between the OCC and other state banking departments. In November 2006, OCC and the New York Banking Superintendent signed the first such agreement. According to the Ombudsman's 2005-2006 Annual Report, over a majority of states entered into similar agreements by the fall of 2007. Another outreach initiative designed specifically to assist customers of national banks with questions and concerns is OCC's new Web site--www.HelpWithMyBank.gov, launched in July 2007. The site answers common questions that appeal to all bank consumers, not just customers of national banks, and includes topics such as credit cards, interest rates, check cashing, late payments, and mortgage issues. The site also provides information about how to determine whether a bank is a national bank and how to contact regulators of institutions other than national banks.

    Recommendation: To identify ways to improve its process for handling consumer complaints and inquiries and its efforts to better inform, educate, and serve bank customers, the Comptroller of the Currency should develop and implement a comprehensive plan to inform bank customers, consumer advocates, state attorneys general, and other appropriate entities of OCC's role in handling consumer inquiries or complaints about national banks. The plan could include such steps as directly distributing an informational brochure to some bank customers and meeting with state and local consumer advocates and appropriate state officials to describe OCC's role and processes for assisting bank customers and others who raise consumer protection concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

 

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