Washington, DC - Take a look at ftc.gov and what’s the first thing we say in the top right and on pretty much every page on the site? File a consumer complaint. Ever wonder where we get those complaints and how we use them?

Many complaints come to us when consumers click that button to go to the FTC’s Complaint Assistant. (We have a video to make the process crystal-clear.) But our interest in gathering up-to-date complaint data doesn’t end there. We also administer the Consumer Sentinel Network. Forty law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, consumer organizations, business groups, and others contribute the complaints they receive to the Consumer Sentinel database, making it a one-of-a-kind resource.

Although we try to be as inclusive as possible in collecting complaints, who can review them is exclusive – very exclusive. The complaints we receive are nonpublic. The only people who can access them are federal, state, or local law enforcement officers who agree to go through a stringent set of hoops about confidentiality and security. Even groups that contribute complaints to Consumer Sentinel can’t review the database unless they’re bona fide law enforcers and meet the rigorous requirements. (Of course, certain federal laws require us to turn over information in limited legal circumstances, but aside from that, complaints are confidential. And even in those instances, we do our best to protect consumers’ personal information.)

So how do we use complaints?

  1. Law enforcement.  This video offers a few real-world examples of how complaints in Consumer Sentinel have helped consumer protection enforcers crack a case. Consumer complaints are only one factor in law enforcement decisionmaking – in many cases, consumers might not even know they had been defrauded or deceived – but they can offer insights into what’s going on in the marketplace.
  2. Setting priorities.  The FTC uses complaint information to help us track trends in potentially illegal practices and spot areas where more consumer and business education is necessary. Thus, complaints help us allocate taxpayer resources wisely.
  3. Transparency.  Every year we publish a data book jammed-packed with aggregate statistics on the consumer complaints we received in the past year. (The latest edition will be coming out soon.) We pull information from those stats to compile the annual public review of the Top 10 Consumer Complaint Categories.

If your organization compiles consumer complaints, let us know if you’d like to share them with law enforcers.