My latest paper: Not-So-Smartphone Disclosures

by Jeff Sovern

I co-authored it with Nahal Heydari.  It's available here. And here's the abstract:

Consumers increasingly engage in financial transactions on smartphones, including obtaining loans. Lawmakers depend on mandatory disclosures to alert consumers when loan terms are excessive. When those disclosures are provided on the tiny screen of a mobile phone, can consumers decipher them? To answer that question, we surveyed 659 consumers, showing half of them standard credit card disclosures on a computer or laptop and half of them disclosures on a mobile phone, and using many of the same questions about the disclosures posed in a 2008 survey with the forms on paper. We found that consumers understood the disclosures significantly less well on smartphones, suggesting that predatory lenders would have an easier time persuading consumers to take out high-priced loans by offering them on mobile apps. Indeed, our respondents who saw the disclosures on smartphones failed to answer correctly nearly half the time.

Our study also indicates that many consumers cannot comprehend credit card disclosures whether they see them on a computer, a mobile phone, or, for that matter, on paper. More specifically, more than a third of the time, on average, consumers could not come up with the correct answer to questions about the forms. The problem is particularly acute for African-American and LatinX respondents, thus opening the door to reverse-redlining. Finally, we found that consumers have an easier time grasping disclosures of penalty fees, such as late fees—as to which charges are limited by federal law—than of penalty interest rates (e.g., higher interest rates assessed because a consumer fails to make timely payments) or non-penalty fees (e.g., cash advance fees)—as to which charges are not limited. Indeed, consumers were 36% more likely to answer questions correctly when asked about matters on which credit card issuers are barred from charging unreasonable fees than when they were asked about items as to which their ability to understand the disclosure was their only protection. These findings suggest that disclosure inadequately protects consumers and that lawmakers should consider imposing additional limits on credit card charges.

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