The volume of consumer complaints about debt collection, as published in January and February of 2015 by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), is nearly identical to the number published in the same time period last year. But while the volume numbers may be the same, there are significant changes within the complaint data.

In January 2015, the CFPB published 3,271 debt collection complaints, nearly identical to the number (3,279) published in January 2014. That number jumped in February 2015 to 3,391, again mirroring a similar jump to 3,366 in February 2014.

Rather than serving as an indicator of consumer satisfaction or sentiment regarding debt collectors, the almost standardized volume of collection complaints probably has more to do with CFPB publishing criteria. The CFPB’s public complaint database, Consumer Response, lists only complaints submitted to the Bureau that companies have had an opportunity to respond to, and does not include complaints referred to other regulatory agencies, complaints found to be incomplete, or complaints that are pending with the consumer or the CFPB. It also does not list complaints made against companies that cannot be found.

The ARM industry should be mindful of this fact when reports of “increasing consumer dissatisfaction” appear in the media. The CFPB noted just last month that it has published only 45 percent of the total debt collection complaints it has received.

But within the complaints data, consumers’ voices are being heard as certain measures shift from year to year.

The most obvious change in consumer complaint patterns is the sharp increase in debt collection complaints related to medical bills. In January, medical debt collection complaints made up 15.7 percent of all complaints. That number dropped to 14.2 percent in February, but was still far above the 11.5 percent of complaints attributed to medical bills for all of 2014. In February 2014 alone, just 9.8 percent of complaints were about medical debt.

The CFPB has made it no secret that medical debt is a major focus for its debt collection regulation. The agency underscored that point last year with its study and action on medical debt in collection as it relates to credit reporting.

Also in the market segment data within collection complaints, the “Other” category has increased in prominence. That category, which the CFPB says is comprised mostly of debts related to telecom and membership services, accounted for about 30 percent of complaints across January and February, compared to 27.6 percent for all of 2014. An uptick in complaints related to telecom accounts (cell phone, wireline, cable, Internet, etc.) is probably the driver of that increase.

The CFPB has yet to publish consumer complaint narratives, but that is coming soon, most likely by the end of June. Collection agencies already have standardized response choices available in the CFPB’s Company Portal.

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