Citibank Must Pay Back The $14 Million It Stole From Customers Over A Decade

Between 1992 and 2003, Citibank operated an “automatic sweeping” program that would without notice remove positive balances from customers’ credit card accounts—mainly those of the poor and the recently deceased—and pocket the money. Now it’s paying back $14 million dollars to the affected customers, plus another $3.5 million in penalties to California, thanks to that state’s Attorney General.

From the Associated Press:

Citigroup’s “account sweeping program” automatically removed positive balances from customers’ credit card accounts, Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said. For instance, if a customer double-paid a bill by mistake or refunded a purchase for credit, that positive balance was then taken from the customer without notification, Brown said.

The news stories that announced the settlement last week don’t explain why the sweeping program was set up in the first place, or why it ran for so long. They do point out, however, that a whistleblower brought the program to the attention of an internal audit team in 2001, but that person was ignored and later fired.

One unnamed Citibank executive explains Citibank’s position pretty succintly in the AG’s press release:

In the words of a Citibank executive, “Stealing from our customers is a business decision, not a legal decision.” The same executive later said that the sweep program could not be stopped because it would reduce the executive bonus pool.

Citibank says it admits to no wrongdoing, although we’re not sure how you can characterize pocketing overpayments and credits for yourself as crime-free.

According to the settlement (PDF), Citibank must identify all affected accounts and mail a notice via first class mail to the account holder’s last known address, or to the person in charge of the customer’s estate. You’ll have to respond within 60 days of this notice, and then will be reimbursed the skimmed fees plus 10% interest. The bank has until June 1st, 2009 to refund the money.

“Citi pays $18M for questioned credit card practice” [Associated Press]
“Citibank Stole From 53,000 Customers” (Thanks to Claire!)
(Photo: Getty)