Santander Bank To Pay $10M Fine Over Alleged Illegal Overdraft Practices

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

Santander Bank has agreed to pay $10 million to settle federal regulatory allegations that it illegally charged overdraft fees to customers who didn’t affirmatively opt in to the bank’s overdraft policies.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced on Thursday that it has ordered the Delaware-based bank to pay the fine, accusing the company’s telemarketing vendor of deceptively marketing an overdraft service and signing certain bank customers up for the service without their consent.

Under federal rules [PDF] that took effect in 2010, banks and credit unions are barred from charging overdraft fees on ATM and one-time debit card transactions unless account-holders affirmatively opt in. If customers don’t opt in, banks may decline the transaction because of insufficient or unavailable funds, and can’t charge an overdraft fee.

According to the CFPB consent order [PDF], the bank – which operates in the Northeast and whose logo too closely resembles the poo emoji – allegedly failed to follow those rules from 2010 to 2014 when relying on third-party vendors to market and enroll consumers in its “Account Protector” overdraft service for ATM and one-time debit card transactions, and charged consumers $35 per overdraft.

The CFPB claims that the telemarketer service persuaded customers to opt-in to the overdraft service by providing them with inaccurate information related to the cost, fees, and use of the service.

Telemarketers often erroneously claimed, per the complaint, that the overdraft service was free, when in fact it could potentially cost them hundreds of dollars in fees.

Some call representatives are also alleged to have falsely suggested that consumers would not be charged a fee if they brought their account current within five business days of an overdraft. Other representatives implied that consumers would be charged fees only for emergency transactions, and that non-emergency purchases would not result in fees.

Additionally, the CFPB says it found that telemarketers promoting the service claimed that customers would be hit with overdraft fees even if they did not opt into the service.

The complaint alleges that in order to increase the number of customers using the service, Santander would reward the telemarketer with a higher hourly rate when they enrolled a certain number of customers.

In order to reach these sales targets, the CFPB alleges that in many cases the telemarketers did not actually ask the consumers if they wanted to opt in, but enrolled them anyway. Other instances involved the telemarketers briefly describing the protection, asking them for their last four digits of their Social Security numbers, and enrolled them without their consent.

Under the CFPB’s consent order Santander must pay a $10 million penalty, validate all opt-in choices that were made by the telemarketer, and cease using a telemarketer to promote the service.

In agreeing to the settlement, Santander neither admits nor denies any of the allegations brought by the CFPB.

“Santander Bank is committed to always treating our customers fairly and ensuring our vendors do too,” a spokesperson for the bank said in a statement. “We regret that the vendor we hired to promote this service may not have followed our instructions and we did not supervise them as closely as we should have. These actions, which occurred several years ago, do not reflect our values and fell short of the high expectations we have for ourselves and our vendors. We are terminating our relationship with the vendor and are continuing to implement additional controls to ensure more effective oversight of our vendors and our processes.”