Understanding How Government Protects You

A guide to the federal agencies that exist to serve consumers.

June 1, 2009 — -- The Obama administration is talking about creating one centralized government agency to oversee all aspects of banking, lending and anything else related to consumers and money. I'm a consumer reporter not a political reporter, so I don't know if the political will exists to do it. But I thought it would be a good time to remind you of the main federal agencies that already serve consumers in one way or another.

Here they are with a summary of some of the main things they do that impact consumers. With our alphabet soup of agencies and sub-agencies, I'm sure to have forgotten some, but these are the agencies I have most often covered in my years on the consumer beat.

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Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.govwww.ftc.gov

The FTC is the nation's consumer watchdog. It tracks bad companies and problem industries. The FTC's Web site contains scores of helpful articles about the most common scams and rip-offs and how to avoid them. The FTC does not resolve individual consumer complaints, but it does file suit against companies that have shown a pattern of deceptive business practices.

The FTC also has some special responsibilities mandated by law. It runs the National Do Not Call list. The FTC is where you complain if there is a mistake on your credit report and the big three credit bureaus have refused to correct it. And the FTC is the central clearinghouse for tracking and educating consumers about identity theft. On the more corporate side, it is the FTC that rules on whether companies can be allowed to merge or whether by doing so they would create a monopoly.

Federal Reserve:www.federalreserve.gov

You already know that the Fed tries to both stimulate our economy and keep inflation in check by tweaking the interest rates that banks earn when they deposit their money with the government. But did you know that the Fed also sets regulations that credit card companies must follow?

Lost in the hubbub about Congress passing a credit card reform bill is that in December the Fed had already put rules in place to address most of the same abuses. The Fed's rules go into effect next July. The Fed also publishes helpful lists of credit card interest rates, so you can get a feel for what different companies offer. And, most obscure of all, the Federal Reserve oversees automobile leasing and the financial disclosures dealers must make to customers.

The Treasury and FDIC

Department of the Treasury: www.treasurydirect.gov

The U.S. Treasury obviously has big responsibilities as the nation's bank account, but it also does some things that any little ol' consumer might tap into. If you want to buy savings bonds, you can buy them directly from the Treasury at their Web site.

Maybe more intriguing, the Treasury operates a service called "Treasury Hunt" where you can search if there are forgotten savings bonds in your family's name that are no longer earning interest and haven't been cashed in. And, just for fun, you might be interested to know that the Treasury auctions off millions of dollars worth of goods seized from criminals to raise money for law enforcement. Oh, and the Treasury also oversees a little sub-agency you may have heard of, called the IRS.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: www.fdic.gov

When you heard that your bank accounts are now insured for up to $250,000 instead of $100,000, it's the FDIC that will foot the bill if you ever need that backing. The FDIC monitors its member banks to make sure they are healthy and also investigates consumer complaints about FDIC-insured banks.

The FDIC Web site has all sorts of educational material for consumers. Not all banks are under the FDIC. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency oversees some national banks and mortgage companies. And the Office of Thrift Supervision covers Savings and Loans. Credit Unions fall under the National Credit Union Administration.

The SEC and HUD

Securities and Exchange Commission: www.sec.gov

The Securities and Exchange Commission oversees and investigates rogue investment types -- or at least it's supposed to. The SEC does not have much direct contact with consumers, except for those filing major complaints about fraud and corruption. Actually, investment advisors are licensed by an industry group called FINRA (formerly NASD).

HUD/Federal Housing Administration: www.hud.gov and www.fha.gov

The Department of Housing and Urban Development includes the more specialized Federal Housing Administration. The FHA's mission is to spur home ownership by insuring mortgages for people who meet certain criteria. Those people are able to purchase a home with as little as 3.5 percent down.

When an FHA-insured mortgage goes into default and is foreclosed on, then the house becomes a "HUD home" that is sold or auctioned off to the public. HUD can also connect consumers with a network of counselors who can guide people through purchasing a home, refinancing or fending off foreclosure.