TCF National Bank has a new distinction: gripe king.
When it comes to bank accounts and services, the Wayzata-based lender is the most-complained-about bank in the country, based on the ratio of consumer complaints to total deposits. Most of the kvetching is about checking-account issues.
That’s according to a report out Tuesday from a major consumer advocacy group that analyzed a consumer-complaints database created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the government’s new watchdog agency.
In the first of what it says will be several reports, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group calls the database an essential tool in protecting consumers from deceptive and abusive practices.
“We’re hoping to see this transparency help good companies do better,” said Laura Murray, with PIRG’s Education Fund.
TCF disputes the findings. A spokesman noted that the bank has an unusually large number of checking accounts for a bank its size, which skews the results.
Vice Chairman Tom Jasper said TCF supports the consumer protection bureau and the database, but called the Public Interest Research Group’s methodology “significantly flawed.”
The report — “Big Banks, Big Complaints” — focuses on the 19,000 complaints that consumers lodged about bank accounts and services, such as money transfers, between March 2012 and July 2013.
Most of the problems, by far, were with checking accounts, as various fees associated with them have been a lightning rod for consumer dissatisfaction for some time.
A matter of scope?
The CFPB was collecting the complaints during a period when banks where turning to checking-accounts business to help recoup revenue they say they lost as a result of new financial regulations.
The biggest complaint, according to the report, was about the opening, closing or management of a checking account — a broad category that includes the fees consumers so despise.
Wayzata-based TCF ranked No. 1 nationally, with 24.9 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. That’s nearly three times the ratio of the No. 2 bank, Sovereign Bank in Boston.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, the state’s largest bank, was No. 12 with 4.1 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank ranked No. 22 at 3.5.
In terms of the actual number of complaints, the country’s largest banks by deposits — Wells Fargo Bank, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase — topped the list.
TCF blamed its poor showing on the scope of its business. For a bank its size, with just $14 billion in deposits, TCF has 1.2 million checking accounts.
It probably has more than any bank in its peer group, said TCF spokesman Jason Korstange.
“Because of our hard work, we’re able to get more checking accounts than anybody else,” Korstange said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Altogether, TCF had 346 complaints about accounts and services.
The percentage of complaints per checking account at TCF is low, Korstange noted. “We look at every complaint,” he said.
TCF has adjusted its fees associated with checking accounts several times in recent years to find what consumers would accept.
In June 2012, for instance, it killed the 15-transactions-per-month requirement customers had to meet to avoid a $9.95 monthly maintenance fee, which it introduced in 2010.
Last year, it changed its overdraft policy, giving customers three choices: getting charged $37 per overdraft item, or $28 a day for the first five days of overdrafts, or opting out of overdraft altogether, which results in a card being declined if a transaction overdraws an account.
‘Give it a couple of years’
TCF didn’t fare better in other areas.
The lender topped the complaints-to-deposit ratios for all five accounts and services categories the CFPB tracks, including: opening; closing or managing accounts; making/receiving payments; deposits and withdrawals; problems caused by funds being too low, and using a debit or ATM card.
Dan Geller, executive vice president of Market Rates Insight, a San Anselmo, Calif. company that provides research and analysis for financial institutions, said banks have mishandled their checking accounts by continuing to try to tack on fees. Instead, they should be trying to add more value to checking accounts by bundling them with other services.
“Consumers dislike paying fees for traditional services but are more than willing to pay fees for emerging services such as mobile deposits, identification theft protection, credit score reporting,” Geller said. “That’s the key.”
George John, marketing professor at University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, noted that complaint studies don’t necessarily measure overall customer satisfaction.
The complaint figures will be much more valuable over time, he said.
“Give it a couple of years.,” he said. “You’ll get some useful information.”