Consumer Protection Agencies Saw Increase in Complaints in 2020

Phil Weiser speaks at an event in 2019.
This week, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Colorado is joining a coalition of support of the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against the Texas abortion ban law, which stops abortions after approximately six weeks. / Law Week file.

Colorado consumers had a lot to complain about in 2020, and credit reports, airlines and robocalls were at the top of the list.

The Consumer Protection Division of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office received a record-breaking 12,130 complaints in 2020, up 23.5% from 2019, said Attorney General Phil Weiser, speaking during a webinar last week to mark National Consumer Protection Week.

The most common target of complaints were airlines that “failed to do right by their customers,” Weiser said. “To be clear, most of this was Frontier Airlines,” he added, noting the Denver-based carrier was the company that generated the most complaints during the pandemic.

In September, Weiser called for the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate Frontier based on complaints about deceptive business practices such as issuing unusable credits for canceled flights and customer service delays and disconnections that prevented customers from redeeming flight credits. The USDOT has said they are investigating Frontier, Weiser said during the March 1 webinar, “and we’re going to be pressing that forward with the new administration.”

Complaints also targeted robocalls, which “continue to be a scourge,” Weiser said, and retail businesses that engaged in unscrupulous practices such as unauthorized subscription or membership renewals and charging new fees.

An increase in consumer complaints was also recorded at the national level. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received nearly 450,000 complaints in 2020, according to a report released last week by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG). The number was a 50% increase from 2019, which itself was a record-setting year, according to CoPIRG Foundation executive director Danny Katz, also speaking at last week’s webinar.

Coloradans complained to the CFPB about inaccuracies on credit and personal consumer reports more than any other issue, according to the CoPIRG report, and other credit reporting issues, problems with mortgage payments, debt collections, bank accounts and credit or prepaid card rounded out the top 10 reasons for complaints.

Dan Vedra of Denver consumer law firm Vedra Law said he has seen similar trends in the types and number of calls he has been getting. “There’s definitely been an uptick in people that are concerned about things that appear on their credit,” Vedra said, “because at a time when people are working on reduced incomes, having access to credit is very, very important.”

With interest rates at historic lows, he added, many people have attempted to refinance their homes but been hindered by incorrect credit reporting, leading to other complaints.

One area where Vedra has seen a small decrease in the past year has been debt collection issues, a change he attributes in large part to SB20-211, which the General Assembly passed last summer to limit extraordinary collection actions such as garnishment for consumer debt. The moratorium was supposed to expire last month but has been extended until June 1.

“During the pandemic, there are more fears out there, and there is more ground to prey on people’s fears,” Weiser said when asked why he thinks complaints went up, adding that COVID-fueled anxieties over stimulus checks, vaccines and protective gear created opportunity for scammers.

“There’s a lot of people who are under financial stress right now,” said CoPIRG’s Katz. “And when you’re under financial stress, you’re more vulnerable to some of the traps that are out there.”

Katz recommended consumers protect themselves from identity theft and other scams by freezing their credit at the three major credit bureaus. He said identity theft is a common problem during tax season and encouraged people to file their returns sooner rather than later to prevent scammers from using stolen information to claim tax refunds for themselves.

“The first rule of thumb … is vigilance,” Weiser said. “You have to assume as a consumer that every interaction you have on social media, email, at the door or someone calling the phone is a potential scammer.”

“It is a scary world we’re living in, particularly for older Coloradans, who may have a harder time adjusting from a trust mindset to a vigilance mindset,” he said.

The Senate Banking Committee held a confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Rohit Chopra, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CFPB director. During the hearing, Chopra warned of a coming “avalanche of loan defaults and repossessions” and the need to be ready for “looming problems” in housing as forbearances could become foreclosures and evictions.

Chopra, who is currently a member of the Federal Trade Commission, suggested that under his watch, the CFPB wouldn’t shy away from seeking restitution for consumers who had been defrauded — a practice that was all but abandoned during the Trump administration.

“When you rip someone off and don’t have to pay them back, how is that really much of a sanction?” Chopra said at the hearing. “Restitution is a critical part of the enforcement work in order to make victims whole.”

Vedra said that the Trump-era CFPB, led by Kathleen Kraninger and, before that, the “notoriously anti-consumer” Mick Mulvaney, was “the equivalent of having the fox guard the henhouse.”

“During the last four years, we haven’t seen any improvements in the regulations that the CFPB administers,” he said. “What we have seen instead is a bunch of rollbacks and a lot of things to make it easier for industry, particularly the debt collection industry, to … harass people into submission. So, I suspect that will change.”

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