WASHINGTON — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's announcement Wednesday that it was extending its consumer complaint process to include mortgage products raised renewed questions about exactly how the agency's complaint process works.

The system is a highly automated, online web portal that can be accessed by consumers, banks and the bureau to track a complaint during the entire review process. To date, the system has only handled credit card complaints, but it is set to begin taking mortgage inquiries on Dec. 1.

Here's how the process functions:

The Complaint

The process begins when a consumer submits a complaint via the bureau's website, http://www.consumerfinance.gov/. The online form is broken down into five categories: What Happened?, Desired Resolution, My Information, Credit Card Information and Review.

The form provides a lengthy field — recently increased to 4,000 characters from 2,500 — for consumers to describe what happened to them, as well as what category their complaint falls into, whether they believe the issue involves discrimination, whether they lost money and what actions they have taken to try to resolve the issue.

When consumers begin to submit mortgage complaints this week, they may also upload files and any other supporting documents via the website. The bureau may also take the additional step of referring consumers with mortgage-related complaints to housing counselors at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HOPE NOW or other agencies.

The Review

Once a consumer submits the form, the bureau sends an email notifying them that the complaint has been received. They can also log back into the website using a secure password to track the status of their complaint in real time.

At the same time, the complaint is automatically routed to the bank that is the subject of the complaint.

Using the same online portal, employees in a bank's consumer complaint department can view the complaint information, including when it was submitted and by whom, the nature of the complaint, the account number associated with the complaint and the date by which they must respond and address the complaint.

The bureau requires a company to respond to the consumer within 15 days, and to close the complaint within 60 days.

Response and Closure

When a bank is ready to respond to the complaint, they must also submit a web form — sent to the bureau and the consumer — that outlines the steps they have taken to address the consumer's concern, and the status of the complaint.

The bank has several options to choose from: it could close the complaint without relief or with relief, which it must disclose. The status may also be pending, or the complaint could have been closed due to technical reasons, for example, if it was misdirected to the wrong company.

Once the response is sent to the consumer, he or she has the right to dispute the response.

The Investigation

The bureau will conduct its own periodic investigations of consumer complaints, with priority given to consumers that dispute a company's response.

The investigation may include interviewing the consumer and bank representatives, and requesting additional information and supporting documents from the bank.

The entire consumer response staff will eventually total between 130 and 150 people, including staffers at call centers in New Mexico and Iowa.

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