On September 8, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) put out a press release that it was fining Wells Fargo Bank $100 million for secretly opening deposit and credit card accounts, without customer approval. In addition to the CFPB fine, Wells Fargo was fined $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, $50 million by the City and Country of Los Angeles and will have to pay approximately $5 million in restitution to customers. This fraudulent behavior occurred on a massive scale and, based on the CFPB’s investigation, resulted in:
- Employees opening 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts;
- Employees submitting applications for 565,443 credit-card accounts, without the knowledge or consent of the people in whose names the applications were made;
- Employees creating fake email addresses in order to enroll consumers in online-banking services;
- Employees requesting debit cards for customers, without the customers’ knowledge or consent, and creating PINs to activate these cards.
All of the above has happened only since January 1, 2011. That is about five years in which these shenanigans were going on. During this time, Wells Fargo fired about 5,300 employees but it does not appear that the bank did a lot more than that to change the culture and systems in order to keep these practices from recurring, or that it took any steps to do right by the customers who were affected. To boot, the executive who oversaw the unit where this all happened left without having to pay back any of the almost $125 million that she earned with the bank. To understand why employees engaged in these dishonest practices, it is important to understand how they benefitted.
Wells Fargo is valued at over $250 billion, making it the most valuable bank in United States, by this yardstick. Wells Fargo was also considered to be the king of cross-selling. Cross-selling is a practice where banks sell more than one service to a customer. For instance, say you open a checking account with Wells Fargo. If the person that you open your account with convinces you to then open a savings account, a credit card account and a mortgage, all of that is cross-selling. At Wells Fargo, employees were paid and received bonuses based on the number of different services they were able to sell to customers. At times, employees would have to work unpaid overtime hours in order to reach these goals and would be threatened with losing their jobs if they did not do enough cross-selling. These employees were told to do “whatever it takes” in order to meet sales goals and this turned out to include engaging in the fraudulent behaviors I noted above.
With the pressure to perform in order to increase earnings, through bonuses, or merely keep a job, the retail employees, at least 5,300 of them, found many opportunities to game the system. Controls at Wells Fargo, when it came to ensuring accounts were valid and authorized by customers, appears to have been very lax. For instance:
- Employees were able to sign up customers for banking services and would use fake email addresses that used wellsfargo.com as the domain name, such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Doesn’t that seem rather brazen? It also seems like a security shortfall on the part of the bank, that the application process wouldn’t flag an email that doesn’t exist in your own system.
- When employees opened fake deposit accounts, they would fund these accounts by transferring a customers money from an authorized account to the fake account. Sometimes, as a result of the transfer, the authorized account would incur insufficient balance and overdraft fees. Also, the fake accounts would also incur fees and Wells Fargo would withdraw money from the authorized accounts in order to pay these fees.
- In a similar manner, credit card accounts opened, without the approval or knowledge of customers, would incur annual and other fees. At times, these customers would find that they were in collections and their credit scores had been affected by accounts that they did not even know they had.
- Some customers actually received credit cards for accounts that they had not authorized. When these customers contacted Wells Fargo to complain about these cards, they were told to simply destroy the cards. Destroying a credit card does not close the credit card account, nor does the shredding of a card do anything as far as the shredding that your credit profile may have taken.
- In order to meet quarterly goals, employees would hold back applications for account openings. The manual applications, that included sensitive personal information, would be stockpiled in an unsecured manner and the accounts would only be opened in the next sales goal period, in a practice referred to as sandbagging.
- Wells Fargo also misled customers by telling them that they could not get one service without getting a bundle of other included services. That would be like opening a checking account and being told that you cannot do so unless you open a savings account and get a credit card with the bank.
With how widespread these practices were, it seems that employees were sharing knowledge about how to best bulk up their cross-selling numbers, without actually cross-selling. Also, when customers complained about fees, it is unclear how much of a follow-up there was to discover if what had happened was a mistake or not. Then, when Wells Fargo discovered this behavior and fired an employee, the bank did not take any steps to let the impacted customers know that their information had been used to open accounts in their name and, if applicable, charge them fees. The bank did not go back and refund customers the fees they had been charged, unless the customer raised a stink about them. When I was discussing this case with my husband and explaining how customers were negatively affected, he had a tale of his own. He has a credit card (not Wells Fargo) and the company changed his credit card information, without letting him know. When he sent payment on his account, they accepted the payment, without telling him that the account was closed, and then charged him interest and fees on the balance that had been moved to a new account. He, not the credit card company, had to figure out what had happened and he, not the credit card company had to calculate the monies that needed to be refunded to him and make sure that the company was not just holding money on a nonexistent account but actually crediting it to his account.
As a result of this case, in addition to the fines that Wells Fargo has been ordered to pay, there are steps the bank has been ordered to take in order to improve the culture and strengthen the system so that this kind of behavior can be prevented, detected and corrected in the future. This includes:
- Employee training to prevent “Improper Sales Practices” and improve integrity at the bank;
- Creating monitoring processes and policies to effectively deal with customer complaints;
- Creating systems to ensure that customer approval is received before accounts are opened on their behalf;
- Revising the basis for how employees are paid and reviewing sales goals to ensure that they are not unrealistic and do not impose unreasonable pressure on employees.
Wells Fargo will continue to be monitored for five years, to make sure that they comply with the CFPB’s consent order.
On your part, with all your accounts, you can check to make sure that they accounts that you have are ones that you have authorized and that transactions made in your name are valid. Some steps that you can take are:
- Review your credit report on a regular basis to make sure that all accounts listed are ones that you know about. Several financial institutions offer free credit reports to customers. If this is not an option for you, you can visit the Annual Credit Report website. On this website, you are entitled to credit report per year, from each of the three major credit reporting companies. A strategy to employ is to check a report with one agency every four months;
- Check your bank statements regularly (at least monthly) for any transactions that are incorrect. Even if it is a small amount, look into a transaction. That small amount could be an indication of something bigger;
- If you receive a card in the mail that you did not apply for it, follow-up on it and make sure that it is cancelled. Then check your credit report again.
On the Wells Fargo website, the Chairman and CEO states that “Everything we do is built on trust.” It seems that many employees have been playing lip service to that value and we know that, even with trust, it is important to verify. Take the time to check in on your finances. There may be mistakes that need fixing and there may also be pressured employees who are trying to get ahead or merely hold onto their jobs by engaging in dishonest practices.