5 Things You Can Do to...Complain to Banks Effectively and Get Results

What if you have a problem with a financial institution but you're not sure about the best way to resolve the matter? Here are some tips for dealing with the situation and minimizing the frustrations.

1. First try to fix the problem directly with the institution. That's usually the quickest way to get things done. "Go straight to the source," said Janet Kincaid, FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Officer. "Give the institution an opportunity to resolve the matter." If you're not satisfied with the answers from a customer service representative, consider asking to speak with a manager or someone else with the authority to take action.

Also, before you contact the institution, think about how you'd like the matter resolved. Summarize in your head or on a piece of paper what the problem is and what you'd like done about it. This will help you remember the key points of the issue. In case the financial institution doesn't agree to your solution, think about your second and third options.

2. Get information in writing. "Document, document, document," Kincaid recommended. With phone calls, ask for the name of the person you are speaking to and keep good notes of your conversation, including the date of your call and promised solutions. But even if that person agrees on a fix for your problem, follow up with a letter that includes who you spoke to, when, and what you spoke about – or ask the company representative to write back confirming any agreements. "That ensures that your discussion and the outcome are documented, just in case there are any disagreements or misunderstandings later on," said Kincaid.

Likewise, she said, when writing to a financial institution or government agency, "include copies of any documents that support your case – never send originals – and again, keep a copy of any correspondence."

3. Stay cool, calm and professional. As hard as it may be, don't turn your problem into a personal dispute with a company employee. If you're upset, allow yourself to calm down before calling or putting pen to paper. You'll be much more effective in getting the institution to see your side of the problem, and you'll probably remember more details.

When writing a letter, include your name, address, phone number, account number, a description of your problem and how you'd like it resolved. Also, date and sign your letter. "Although it goes without saying, make sure your letter is legible," said Kincaid. "The FDIC often receives hand-written letters that are very difficult to read, and it's hard to assist someone if we can't determine the issues or the name of the consumer."

4. Be clear about deadlines or other responsibilities when filing a complaint. To be fully protected under the law, some federal statutes require people to report a problem within a certain time period or to submit their claim in writing.

"For example, making a phone call to dispute a charge on your credit card bill doesn't protect your rights under the law," explained Howard Herman, an FDIC Consumer Affairs Specialist. "Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you must write to the creditor at the address set forth on your statement for billing inquiries," which is not the same place you send your card payments. That law also says that, for full protections, a complaint must be received within 60 days after the creditor sent the statement being questioned.

5. If you can't resolve a problem directly with the institution, consider contacting its government regulator. The FDIC and other banking regulators don't have the legal authority to settle a dispute between a bank and a consumer over whether the institution is living up to the terms of a loan or deposit agreement – that's a private matter governed by state business or contract law, not by federal banking law. But banking regulators often can assist consumers in other ways, such as helping people understand confusing information, contacting an institution that doesn't appear to be responding to a customer's complaint, or seeking corrective action if the institution is in violation of a law or regulation.

Remember that while the FDIC insures deposits in nearly all banking institutions in the United States, we may not be the primary regulator of a particular institution. To find out who regulates an institution, you can call the FDIC toll-free at 1-877-ASK-FDIC (that's 1-877-275-3342) or