LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Employees of Wells Fargo allegedly opened unauthorized accounts for customers and then charged them bogus fees, which in turn damaged their credit, according to Los Angeles city prosecutors.
A civil complaint (PDF) filed Monday by City Attorney Mike Feuer alleges Wells Fargo’s business model imposed unrealistic sales quotas “that, among other things, have driven employees to engage in unlawful activity including opening fee-generating customer accounts and adding unwanted secondary accounts to primary accounts without permission,” Feuer said.
The suit alleges Wells Fargo employees engaged in “unfair, unlawful and fraudulent conduct” through a pervasive culture of high-pressure sales, which in turn have allegedly led to money withdrawn from customer’s authorized accounts to pay for fees assessed by Wells Fargo on unauthorized accounts and derogatory notes on credit reports when unauthorized fees went unpaid, according to Feuer.
In addition to seeking an injunction against Wells Fargo to prohibit the company and its employees from engaging in the alleged practices relating to the opening and maintaining of bank accounts, Feuer said the bank could also be assessed civil penalties of $2,500 for each violation.
Wells Fargo officials have blamed the problems on what they described as a few rogue employees who the bank has appropriately disciplined or fired.
The city’s investigation, however, allegedly found only token efforts by Wells to prevent customer abuses.
In response to the lawsuit, Wells Fargo officials said the bank intends to “rigorously defend” itself against the allegations.
“Wells Fargo’s culture is focused on the best interests of its customers and creating a supportive, caring and ethical environment for our team members,” according to a statement from the bank. “This includes training, audits and processes that work together to support our `Vision & Values’ and our commitment to customers receiving only the products and services they need and will benefit from.”
Bert Ely, a banking analyst and principal of Ely & Company, told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO it’s still unclear how the lawsuit will affect customers of Well Fargo.
“The first thing that I would do is check all my accounts to make sure the accounts that I have are the ones that I set up and that there are no mysterious transactions taking place,” said Ely. “But people should be doing that anyway.”
But some longtime customers like Frank Ahn, who owns two small businesses in L.A., said he noticed that he would close an account and then find another one open.
“Every time I go to the branch, it’s a battle with them. I feel if I have a bank account with you, it should be a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship,” Un said. “But this is totally one-sided in Wells Fargo’s favor.”
But when asked whether he still banks with Wells Fargo, Un acknowledged he would likely have to continue doing so to keep his business running.
“The reason being it’s very hard for me to change banks, I have maybe 30 companies that take money in and out of my account,” he said. “I’d have to go to each of their accounting departments to transfer bank information…it’s a lot of work.”
In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department announced Wells Fargo – which was at the time the largest residential home mortgage originator in the United States – would pay nearly $175 million to settle accusations of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers between 2004 and 2009.
Wells Fargo released a statement, saying, “We will vigorously defend ourselves against these allegations. Wells Fargo’s culture is focused on the best interests of its customers, and creating a supportive, caring and ethical environment for our team members.”
Current Wells Fargo customers were being urged to review their own accounts for any suspicious activity. Any customers who find discrepancies were asked to call the City Attorney’s dedicated hotline at (213) 978-3393.
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