WASHINGTON The U.S. government is intensifying its use of consumer complaint websites with two new outlets for customer gripes that have trade groups for manufacturers and financial firms concerned about smear campaigns and lawsuits.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to go public on March 11 with a searchable database of consumer complaints about specific products. The agency unveiled the project on Tuesday at its www.saferproducts.gov/ website.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is beginning to build a financial products complaint database that will be operable, though not necessarily made public, when the agency comes to life on July 21.
Both developments are seen as important for consumers, who could consult the CPSC database before buying products, and may be able to use the financial bureau program as a faster and more direct route to complaining about financial products and services.
But industry associations have expressed concern that baseless or inaccurate complaints could taint reputations. They have also raised the specter of class-action attorneys using the safety commission database to get new lawsuit ideas.
It is unclear how the financial agency's complaint database will be used.
Elizabeth Warren, the White House special adviser who is helping to build the agency, has focused on it being "born digital" -- with the ability to instantly reach and be reached by millions of Americans "by just hitting a Send button."
Her aim is to build a high-tech complaint management system including a consumer telephone hotline, an agency official said.
Of course, neither agency's site will be of the "ThisCompanyStinks.com" variety already popular on the Web.
FOCUS ON SAFETY
The CPSC is limiting complaints that will be made public to those that present safety and health hazards, spokesman Alex Filip said in an interview.
Consumers will not be able to go to the agency's website to find out whether a crib is difficult to assemble or a toaster failed to brown bread evenly.
It is not clear whether the new financial regulatory agency will make public the details of the complaints they receive.
"We've got our own mandate and our own mission," the bureau official said. It has begun reaching out to some consumer legal experts for advice on how to best handle complaints.
It is rare for a federal government agency to publish complaints in a way that identifies specific companies and products.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, however, does have a searchable database on its website at SaferCar.gov covering motor vehicles and related equipment, including child restraints.
Manufacturers have voiced concerns about the safety commission database, which was required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The National Association of Manufacturers has argued that company trade secrets might be exposed, or that competitors could smear a company with inaccurate information.
"Plaintiffs and their lawyers may point to reports of harm, whether accurate or not, as establishing notice that a product was dangerous or as 'evidence' that a product caused injury," product liability law firm Alston & Bird warned in an advisory note to clients.
The advisory continued, "plaintiffs' lawyers may also use the database to search for targets of class action and other litigation."
LAWYERS AND COMPETITORS
Alston & Bird also advised that consumer groups and others may submit reports to further an agenda with regard to manufacturers, products and industries, and unscrupulous competitors might use the database to tarnish competitors.
But Filip at the safety commission suggested that there were procedures in place that would prevent those things from happening. Companies would get 10 days to respond to complaints before they became public, he said.
Bankers have similar concerns about any possibility that financial product complaints could go public.
"A competitor could paint a competitor as a bad actor by throwing complaints at them without having any substance at all," said Wayne Abernathy of the American Bankers Association. He also raised the possibility that a public complaint database could be used by identity thieves.
But Abernathy expressed frustration at the current fragmented multi-agency system of collecting complaints about financial products and services, and said his industry would welcome a streamlined procedure for getting consumer concerns to cited financial institutions quickly.
Complaints about financial products are likely to get different treatment than those involving consumer products as the law establishing the financial protection bureau does not require that complaints be posted publicly.
Furthermore, bad financial products and practices may cause harm but are unlikely to cause immediate safety concerns, as is the case with products the subject of complaints to the CPSC and NHTSA.
"I believe in public shaming," said Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group. "But I want the bureau to help consumers and to use consumer complaints, and have the ability to add them up, and calculate who are the bad guys, so they can do law enforcement."
Consumers who want to vent their dissatisfaction with companies and financial firms don't have to wait for the Feds. They can complain publicly on Twitter or post their gripes on independent complaint websites like RipOffReport.com, Complaint.com, and My3Cents.com -- all sites that have been recommended by the Consumer Federation of America. Consumers can check those sites to see whether a company has received a lot of complaints.
Investors who want to check out a broker can use BrokerCheck, the complaint database maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the self-regulatory organization that oversees securities firms.
(Writing by Linda Stern; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)