More than a year after the city of Los Angeles sued Wells Fargo for alleged customer account abuses, including pushing employees into opening unauthorized accounts to make sales quotas, the banking giant has been ordered to pay more than $185 million in refunds and penalties.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, along with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Los Angeles city attorney, announced the joint enforcement action Thursday, putting an end to the years-long probe into Wells Fargo’s practices involving cross-selling products to customers – for example, coaxing a checking account holder to open a credit card.
The consent order [PDF] notes that, since Jan. 2011, Wells Fargo employees regularly misused customers’ personal information, opening nearly two million unwanted accounts and failing to close the unauthorized accounts despite complaints from customers.
These actions, allege the government, were taken as a result of sales targets and compensation incentives offered by the bank.
In order to meet these goals and receive bonuses, employees boosted sales figures by covertly opening accounts and funding them by transferring funds from consumers’ authorized accounts without their knowledge or consent, often racking up fees or other charges.
In all, Wells Fargo opened roughly 1.5 million deposit accounts and 565,000 credit card accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers.
In some cases, the bank’s employees requested and issued debit cards without consumers’ knowledge or consent, going so far as to create PINs. Additionally, the regulators found that employees created phony email addresses not belonging to consumers to enroll them in online-banking services without their knowledge or consent.
To resolve the issues, Wells Fargo is required to pay at least $2.5 million in full refunds to all affected account holders, including the cost of maintenance fees, nonsufficient fund fees, overdraft charges, and other fees they paid because of the creation of the unauthorized accounts.
The company must separately pay a $35 million penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, $50 million to the City and County of Los Angeles, and a $100 million penalty to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
Wells Fargo first came under fire for the cross-selling tactics in May 2015 when the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit accusing the bank of engaging in a plethora of unfair practices including encouraging employees to open unauthorized consumer accounts and then charging those accounts phony fees.
The lawsuit alleged that Wells Fargo was able to create a “fee-generating machine” that harmed customers, while the bank got by relatively scott-free.
That civil complaint was followed by a class-action seeking lawsuit filed by current and former bank customers. The California man claimed, among other things, that bank employees opened at least seven accounts in his name without permission and that he was routinely hounded by bill collectors to pay fees on those accounts – both issues detailed in the city’s original complaint.
In Nov. 2015, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the San Francisco Federal Reserve announced they would begin probing Wells Fargo’s sales culture to determine if the bank pushed employees too hard to meet sales quotas and turned a blind eye when those workers employed decidedly anti-consumer practices.