Wells Fargo account fraud scandal

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The Wells Fargo account fraud scandal is an ongoing controversy brought about by the creation of millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts on behalf of Wells Fargo clients without their consent. Various regulatory bodies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), fined the company a combined $185 million as a result of the illegal activity, and the company faces additional civil and criminal suits.

Wells Fargo clients began to notice the fraud after being charged unanticipated fees and receiving unexpected credit or debit cards or lines of credit. Initial reports blamed individual Wells Fargo branch workers and managers for the problem, as well as sales incentives associated with selling multiple "solutions" or financial products. This blame was later shifted to a top-down pressure from higher-level management to open as many accounts as possible through cross-selling.

The bank took relatively few risks in the years leading up to the 2008 Financial Crisis, which led to an image of stability on Wall Street and in the financial world. The bank's stable reputation was tarnished by the widespread fraud and subsequent coverage. The controversy resulted in the resignation of CEO John Stumpf, and an investigation into the bank led by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In April 2018, new allegations against Wells Fargo were reported, including forcing customers to buy unnecessary auto insurance policies, with the possibility of an additional $1 billion fine.[1]

Background[edit]

Cross-selling[edit]

Cross-selling, the practice underpinning the fraud, is the concept of attempting to sell multiple products to consumers. For instance, a consumer with a checking account might be encouraged to take out a mortgage, or set up credit card or online banking account.[2] Success by retail banks was measured in part by the average number of products held by a customer, and Wells Fargo was long considered the most successful cross-seller.[3] Richard Kovacevich, the former CEO of Norwest Corporation and, later, Wells Fargo, allegedly invented the strategy while at Norwest.[4][5] In a 1998 interview, Kovacevich likened mortgages, checking and savings accounts, and credit cards offered by the company to more typical consumer products, and revealed that he considered branch employees to be "salespeople", and consumers to be "customers" rather than "clients".[6] Under Kovacevich, Norwest encouraged branch employees to sell at least eight products, in an initiative known as "Going for Gr-Eight".

Early coverage[edit]

Wells Fargo's sales culture and cross-selling strategy, and its effect on customers, were documented by the Wall Street Journal as early as 2011.[7] In 2013, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed intense pressure on bank managers and individual bankers to produce sales against extremely aggressive and even mathematically impossible[8] quotas.[9] In the Los Angeles Times article, CFO Timothy Sloan was quoted stating he was unaware of any "...overbearing sales culture". Sloan would later replace John Stumpf as CEO.

Fraud[edit]

Employees were encouraged to order credit cards for pre-approved customers without their consent, and to use their own contact information when filling out requests to prevent customers from discovering the fraud. Employees also created fraudulent checking and savings accounts, a process that sometimes involved the movement of money out of legitimate accounts. The creation of these additional products was made possible in part through a process known as "pinning". By setting the client's pin to "0000", bankers were able to control client accounts and were able to enroll them in programs such as online banking.[10]

Measures taken by employees to satisfy quotas included the enrollment of the homeless in fee-accruing financial products.[11] Reports of unreachable goals and inappropriate conduct by employees to supervisors did not result in changes to expectations.[12]

After the Los Angeles Times article, the bank made nominal efforts to reform the company's sales culture.[13] Despite alleged reforms, the bank was fined $185 million in early September 2016 due to the creation of some 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts and 565,433 credit-card accounts between 2011 and 2016.[14] Later estimates, released in May 2017, placed the number of fraudulent accounts at closer to a total of 3,500,000.[15]

In December 2016, it was revealed that employees of the bank also issued unwanted insurance policies.[16] These included life insurance policies by Prudential Financial and renters' insurance policies by Assurant.[17] Three whistle-blowers, Prudential employees, brought the fraud to light. Prudential later fired these employees,[18] and announced that it might seek damages from Wells Fargo.[19]

Fines and broader coverage[edit]

John Stumpf, former CEO of Wells Fargo

Despite the earlier coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the controversy achieved national attention only in September 2016, with the announcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that the bank would be fined $185 million for the illegal activity. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received $100 million, the Los Angeles City Attorney received $50 million, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency received the last $35 million.[20] The fines received substantial media coverage in the following days, and triggered attention from further interested parties.[21][22]

Initial response from Wells Fargo and management[edit]

After news of the fines broke, the bank placed ads in newspapers taking responsibility for the controversy.[23] However, the bank rejected the notion that its sales culture led to the actions of employees, stating "...[the fraud] was not part of an intentional strategy".[24] Stumpf also expressed that he would be willing to accept some personal blame for the problems.

Company executives and spokespeople referred to the problem as an issue with sales practices, rather than the company's broader culture.[25]

Effects on Wells Fargo and management[edit]

The bank fired approximately 5300 employees between 2011 and 2016 as a result of fraudulent sales,[26] and discontinued sales quotas at its individual branches after the announcement of the fine in September 2016.[27] John Shrewsberry, the bank's CFO, said the bank had invested $50 million to improve oversight in individual branches. Stumpf accepted responsibility for the problems, but in September 2016, when the story broke, indicated he had no plans to resign.[28]

Stumpf was subject to a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on September 21, 2016, in an effort led by Senator Elizabeth Warren.[29] Before the hearing, Stumpf agreed to forgo $41 million in stock options that had not yet vested after being urged to do so by the company's board.[30] Stumpf resigned on October 12, roughly a month after the fines by the CFPB were announced, to be replaced by COO Timothy Sloan.[31] Sloan indicated there had not been internal pressure for Stumpf's resignation, and that he had chosen to do so after "...deciding that the best thing for Wells Fargo to move forward was for him to retire...".[32] In November 2016, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency levied further penalties against the bank, removing provisions from the September settlement.[33] As a result of the OCC adding new restrictions, the bank received oversight similar to that used for troubled or insolvent financial institutions.[34]

Stumpf received criticism for praising former head of retail banking, Carrie Tolstedt, upon her retirement earlier in 2016, given that the bank had been conducting an investigation into retail banking practices for several years at the time.[35] In April 2017, the bank utilized a clawback provision in Stumpf's contract to take back $28 million of his earnings.[36] Tolstedt was also forced to forfeit earnings, though she denied involvement.[37]

The bank experienced decreased profitability in the first quarter after the news of the scandal broke.[38] Payments to both lawyers and outside firms resulted in increased expenses.[39] After earnings were reported in January 2017, the bank announced it would close over 400 of its approximately 6000 branches by the end of 2018.[40] In May 2017, the bank announced that they would cut costs through investment in technology while decreasing reliance on its “sales organization”.[41] The bank also revised up its 2017 efficiency-ratio goal from 60 to 61.[42]

Effects on others[edit]

On consumers[edit]

Approximately 85,000 of the accounts opened incurred fees, totaling $2 million.[43] Customers' credit scores were also likely hurt by the fake accounts.[44] The bank was able to prevent customers from pursuing legal action as the opening of an account mandated customers enter into private arbitration with the bank.[45]

The bank paid $110 million to consumers who had accounts opened in their names without permission in March 2017.[46][47] The money repaid fraudulent fees and paid damages to those affected.[48]

On non-management Wells Fargo employees[edit]

Wells Fargo employees described intense pressure, with expectations of sales as high as 20 products a day.[49] Others described frequent crying, levels of stress that led to vomiting, and severe panic attacks.[50][51] At least one employee consumed hand sanitizer to cope with the pressure.[52] Some indicated that calls to the company's ethics hotline were met with either no reaction[53] or resulted in the termination of the employee making the call.[54]

During the period of the fraud, some Wells Fargo branch-level bankers encountered difficulty gaining employment at other banks. Banks issue U5 documents to departing employees, a record of any misbehavior or unethical conduct.[55] Wells Fargo issued defamatory U5 documents to bankers who reported branch-level malfeasance, indicating that they had been complicit in the creation of unwanted accounts,[56] a practice that received media attention as early as 2011.[57] There is no regulatory process to appeal a defamatory U5, other than to file a lawsuit against the issuing corporation.

Wells Fargo created a special internal group to rehire employees who had left the bank but were not implicated in the scandal. In April 2017, Timothy Sloan stated that the bank would rehire some 1000 employees who had either been wrongfully terminated or who had quit in protest of fraud.[58] Sloan emphasized that those being rehired would not be those who had participated in the creation of fake accounts.[59] The announcement was made shortly after the news was released that the bank had clawed back income from both Carrie Tolstedt and John Stumpf.

Government actions[edit]

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senate hearing[edit]

John Stumpf appeared before the Senate Banking Committee on September 20, 2016. Stumpf delivered prepared testimony and was then questioned. Senators, including Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, asked about whether the bank would clawback income from executives and how the bank would help consumers it harmed.[60] Stumpf gave prepared testimony, but deferred from answering some of the questions, citing lack of expertise concerning the legal ramifications of the fraud.[61]

Elizabeth Warren referred to Stumpf's leadership as "gutless" and told him he should resign.[62] Patrick Toomey expressed doubt that the 5300 employees fired by Wells Fargo had acted independently and without orders from supervisors or management.[63]

Other investigations[edit]

Prosecutors including Preet Bharara in New York City, and others in San Francisco and North Carolina, opened their own investigations into the fraud.[64] The Securities and Exchange Commission opened its own investigation into the bank in November 2016.[65]

Reactions[edit]

Divestitures by major clients[edit]

In September 2016, California suspended its relationship with the bank.[66] John Chiang, the California State Treasurer, immediately removed the bank as bookrunner on two municipal bond issuings, suspended investments in Wells Fargo, and removed the bank as the state's broker dealer.[67] Chiang cited the company's disregard for the well-being of Californians as the reason for the decision, and indicated the suspension would last for a year.

The city of Chicago also divested $25 million invested with Wells Fargo in the same month as the state of California.[68] Additionally, Chicago alderman Edward M. Burke introduced a measure barring the city from doing business with the bank for two years.[69]

Other cities and municipalities that have either replaced or sought to replace Wells Fargo include Philadelphia, which uses the bank to process payroll,[70] and the state of Illinois.[71] Seattle also ended its relationship with the bank in an effort led by Kshama Sawant. In addition to the account controversy, Seattle cited the company's support of the Dakota Access Pipeline as a reason to end its relationship.[72]

Lawsuit by Navajo Nation[edit]

The Navajo Nation sued Wells Fargo in December 2017.[73] The lawsuit claims Wells Fargo employees told elderly members of the Navajo nation who did not speak English that checks could only be cashed if they had Wells Fargo savings accounts. Wells Fargo was the only bank that operated on a national scale with operations with the Navajo Nation.

From the media[edit]

Wells Fargo survived the Great Recession more or less unharmed, even acquiring and rescuing a failing bank, Wachovia.[74] Politicians on both the left and the right, including Elizabeth Warren and Jeb Hensarling have called for investigation beyond that done by the CFPB.[75]

Many reacted with surprise both to Stumpf's initial unwillingness to resign and the bank's blaming the problem on lower-level employees.[76][77]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Emily Flitter and Glenn Thrush, Wells Fargo Said to Be Target of $1 Billion U.S. Fine, The New York Times, April 19, 2018
  2. ^ Kolhatkar, Elizabeth Warren and the Wells Fargo Scandal
  3. ^ Smith, Copying Wells Fargo, Banks Try Hard Sell
  4. ^ Davidson, How Regulation Failed with Wells Fargo
  5. ^ McLean, How Wells Fargo’s Cutthroat Corporate Culture Allegedly Drove Bankers to Fraud
  6. ^ McLean, How Wells Fargo’s Cutthroat Corporate Culture Allegedly Drove Bankers to Fraud
  7. ^ Smith, Copying Wells Fargo, Banks Try Hard Sell
  8. ^ McLean, How Wells Fargo’s Cutthroat Corporate Culture Allegedly Drove Bankers to Fraud
  9. ^ Reckard, Wells Fargo's pressure-cooker sales culture comes at a cost
  10. ^ Levine, Wells Fargo Opened a Couple Million Fake Accounts
  11. ^ Reckard, Wells Fargo's pressure-cooker sales culture comes at a cost
  12. ^ Reckard, Wells Fargo's pressure-cooker sales culture comes at a cost
  13. ^ Cowley, Voices From Wells Fargo: ‘I Thought I Was Having a Heart Attack’
  14. ^ Levine, Wells Fargo Opened a Couple Million Fake Accounts
  15. ^ Keller
  16. ^ Cowley, Prudential Suspends Sales of Its Life Policies by Wells Fargo
  17. ^ Cowley, Prudential Suspends Sales of Its Life Policies by Wells Fargo
  18. ^ Voreacos, Prudential Says Trio in Whistle-Blower Case Fired for Misconduct
  19. ^ Chiglinsky, Prudential May Press Wells Fargo as Account Fallout Spreads
  20. ^ Levine, Wells Fargo Opened a Couple Million Fake Accounts
  21. ^ Levine, Wells Fargo Opened a Couple Million Fake Accounts
  22. ^ Corkery, Wells Fargo Fined $185 Million for Fraudulently Opening Accounts
  23. ^ Corkery, Wells Fargo Offers Regrets, but Doesn’t Admit Misconduct
  24. ^ Corkery, Wells Fargo Offers Regrets, but Doesn’t Admit Misconduct
  25. ^ Agnes, Wells Fargo Is Not Addressing The Right Questions Within Their Crisis Response
  26. ^ Olen, Wells Fargo Must Pay $185 Million After Opening Customer Accounts Without Asking. That’s Not Enough.
  27. ^ Puzzanghera, Wells Fargo is eliminating retail sales goals after settlement over aggressive tactics
  28. ^ Puzzanghera, Wells Fargo is eliminating retail sales goals after settlement over aggressive tactics
  29. ^ Phillips, Wells Fargo Subpoenaed in Sham Account Case
  30. ^ Faux, Wells Fargo CEO Stumpf Quits in Fallout From Fake Accounts
  31. ^ Gonzales, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf Resigns Amid Scandal
  32. ^ Faux, Wells Fargo CEO Stumpf Quits in Fallout From Fake Accounts
  33. ^ Koren, Wells Fargo hit with new sanctions following fake-accounts scandal
  34. ^ Koren, Wells Fargo hit with new sanctions following fake-accounts scandal
  35. ^ Maxfield, Why Is Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf Making These 3 Major Mistakes?
  36. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Board Claws Back $28 Million More From Ex-CEO
  37. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Board Claws Back $28 Million More From Ex-CEO
  38. ^ Gray, Wells Fargo counts cost of sham accounts scandal
  39. ^ Gray, Wells Fargo counts cost of sham accounts scandal
  40. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Plans to Close More Than 400 Branches Through 2018
  41. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Doubles Cost Slashing as Scandal Spurs Tech Push
  42. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Doubles Cost Slashing as Scandal Spurs Tech Push
  43. ^ Levine, Wells Fargo Opened a Couple Million Fake Accounts
  44. ^ Zarroli, Wells Fargo's Unauthorized Accounts Likely Hurt Customers' Credit Scores
  45. ^ Olen, Wells Fargo Must Pay $185 Million After Opening Customer Accounts Without Asking. That’s Not Enough.
  46. ^ Lam, Wells Fargo’s $110 Million Settlement
  47. ^ Mehrotra, Wells Fargo Reaches $110 Million Fake Accounts Settlement
  48. ^ Mehrotra, Wells Fargo Reaches $110 Million Fake Accounts Settlement
  49. ^ Arnold, Former Wells Fargo Employees Describe Toxic Sales Culture, Even At HQ
  50. ^ Arnold, Former Wells Fargo Employees Describe Toxic Sales Culture, Even At HQ
  51. ^ Cowley, Voices From Wells Fargo: ‘I Thought I Was Having a Heart Attack’
  52. ^ Cowley, Voices From Wells Fargo: ‘I Thought I Was Having a Heart Attack’
  53. ^ Arnold, Former Wells Fargo Employees Describe Toxic Sales Culture, Even At HQ
  54. ^ Arnold, Workers Say Wells Fargo Unfairly Scarred Their Careers
  55. ^ Arnold, Workers Say Wells Fargo Unfairly Scarred Their Careers
  56. ^ Arnold, Workers Say Wells Fargo Unfairly Scarred Their Careers
  57. ^ Singer, Wells Fargo Hit With Punitive Damages in FINRA U5 Defamation Case
  58. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Rehires About 1,000 Staff in Wake of Account Scandal
  59. ^ Keller, Wells Fargo Rehires About 1,000 Staff in Wake of Account Scandal
  60. ^ Chappell, You Should Resign': Watch Sen. Elizabeth Warren Grill Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
  61. ^ Chappell, You Should Resign': Watch Sen. Elizabeth Warren Grill Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
  62. ^ Chappell, You Should Resign': Watch Sen. Elizabeth Warren Grill Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
  63. ^ Chappell, You Should Resign': Watch Sen. Elizabeth Warren Grill Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
  64. ^ Protess, Wells Fargo Subpoenaed in Sham Account Case
  65. ^ Masunaga, Wells Fargo says the SEC is also investigating its accounts scandal
  66. ^ Corkery, California Suspends Ties With Wells Fargo
  67. ^ Corkery, California Suspends Ties With Wells Fargo
  68. ^ Campbell, Chicago to Pull $25 Million From Wells Fargo After Scandal
  69. ^ Campbell, Chicago to Pull $25 Million From Wells Fargo After Scandal
  70. ^ Cineas, Philly May Soon Drop Wells Fargo as City Payroll Bank
  71. ^ Yerak, Illinois treasurer: State will suspend Wells Fargo business
  72. ^ Talton, Does city divestment work? Define ‘work’
  73. ^ Miller, Navajo Nation Sues Wells Fargo Over ‘Outrageous,’ Predatory Practices
  74. ^ The Economist, Stumpfed
  75. ^ The Economist, Stumpfed
  76. ^ Lazarus, Thanks, Wells Fargo, for being such a bunch of weasels
  77. ^ Boston Globe

References[edit]