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Wells Fargo review finds 1.4 mn more suspect accounts

Latest findings bring the number of potentially unauthorised accounts at the bank to 3.5 mn

Stacy Cowley | NYT 

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Nearly a year after Wells Fargo’s fraudulent account scandal burst into public view, the bank said it had turned up more than a million additional accounts that customers may not have authorised.

The news set off a fresh wave of criticism from those frustrated by the bank’s slow pace in coming clean about its misdeeds.

“Every time we get one of these announcements, the pressure rises,” said Nancy Bush, a banking industry analyst who runs NAB Research. “How many customers, and how many employees within Wells Fargo, are coming to the conclusion, ‘I don’t need to be associated with this’?”

The findings brought the number of potentially unauthorised accounts to 3.5 million — a nearly 70 percent increase over the bank’s initial estimate.

agreed last September to pay $185 million to settle three government lawsuits over the bank’s creation of sham accounts. Thousands of employees, trying to meet aggressive sales goals, had created accounts in customers’ names without their knowledge. Workers who met the bank’s sales targets received bonuses — and those who did not risked losing their jobs.

At the time, said that 2.1 million suspect accounts had been opened from 2011 to mid-2015. But it also acknowledged at the time that the problems may have begun earlier, and said it would expand its review to include accounts opened from 2009 to 2016.

Besides the additional accounts announced Thursday, the wider review uncovered a new issue: unauthorised enrolments of customers in the bank’s online bill payment service. said that it had found 528,000 cases in which customers may have been signed up without their knowledge or consent, and will refund $910,000 to customers who incurred fees or charges. The service is now free, but once carried fees for some accounts.

“We are working hard to ensure this never happens again and to build a better bank for the future,” Timothy J. Sloan, Wells Fargo’s chief executive, said in a statement announcing the review’s results. “We apologise to everyone who was harmed.”

But one of the bank’s fiercest critics, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, laid into it with a scathing statement: “Unbelievable. Wells Fargo’s massive fraud is even worse than we thought.”

The scandal over the accounts — and the corporate culture that allowed them to go undetected for so long — toppled Wells Fargo’s previous chief executive, John G. Stumpf, and ignited an outcry from customers, lawmakers and regulators that is still roiling the bank. Several investigations by the Justice Department and state attorneys general remain in progress.

A coalition of 33 consumer groups sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to bring executives back to Capitol Hill — where Mr. Stumpf was roasted last year by unhappy lawmakers, shortly before he stepped down under pressure — to answer new questions about the bank’s abuses. The bank “may have intentionally misled” lawmakers in its previous testimony, they said. Ms. Warren, who is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, also called for the committee to hold a new hearing.

said that it had completed its investigation into unauthorised accounts and did not expect to uncover significantly more.

“This is an important milestone to rebuild trust,” Mr. Sloan said on a call with reporters. He called the discovery of additional unauthorised accounts “a reminder of the disappointment that we caused our customers.”

The problems may have begun years before the period that the bank reviewed. customers and former employees have said that they tried as far back as 2005 to alert bank executives to actions by branch bankers and managers. An investigation commissioned by Wells Fargo’s board found signs of abuses that surfaced in 2002.

The company said it could look back no earlier than 2009 because it did not have sufficient data on previous periods, Mr. Sloan said.

has made sweeping changes in the wake of the scandal, including overhauling its executive lineup, replacing key members of its board, revamping its internal controls and risk management, and emphasising to its bank branch workers that it wants them to focus on customer service, not sales.

“We have no product sales goals at all, at any level, in the community bank,” Mary Mack, who took over last year as the head of that division, said in an interview.

Ms. Mack said she was focused on spreading the message to all of her employees that “long-term, sustainable growth is delivered through a meaningful relationship with customers.”

Still, the damage to Wells Fargo’s reputation will be hard to repair, said Stephen Beck, the founder of cg42, a strategy company that studies banks’ brand perception.

“Their long-term potential is really hampered,” Mr. Beck said. “Will there be a tipping point, where the people at risk — the customers who say they might leave — begin to act on that?”

Pat Piper, a 14-year customer in Tonasket, Wash., said she hit that point on Thursday, as word spread of the newly found fraudulent accounts. She said the news “gave me the nudge I needed” to move her checking and savings accounts to another bank.

“I don’t trust them,” Ms. Piper said. “Once they get caught, they say, ‘Whoops, we’re not going to do that anymore,’ but this wasn’t a small thing. It was corrupt, and it was widespread.”

Wells Fargo’s illegal acts have not taken much of a toll on its profit. The fines, penalties and refunds it has paid out are a small fraction of the $11 billion it earned in the first half of this year.

The review that concluded on Thursday was conducted by PwC, which looked for suspicious usage patterns, like a checking account that was opened with a minimum deposit and then had the same amount withdrawn, with no further activity.

In some cases, customers discovered the fraudulent accounts only when they incurred fees on them. said it has paid customers $7 million to refund those fees. It also agreed to pay $142 million to settle class-action claims over the accounts.

The review focused on retail bank accounts, and did not expand into other areas in which the bank has been accused of wrongdoing, including improperly withholding refunds that some car loan customers were due and charging some customers for auto insurance that they did not need. has said previously that it would refund customers who were affected by those actions.

The bank has also been accused of handling mortgages improperly by making unauthorised changes to the loans of borrowers in bankruptcy (which it has denied) and charging customers fees to extend applications that it delayed (an issue the bank said it was looking into).

The bank disclosed a dozen separate legal and regulatory issues of concern in its last quarterly filing, including an investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into whether customers were harmed by the bank’s practice of freezing, and in some cases closing, bank accounts suspected of being affected by fraudulent activity.

Those simmering problems have not fazed Warren E. Buffett, the bank’s largest shareholder.

“There’s never just one cockroach in the kitchen,” he said on Wednesday in an interview with CNBC. “Once you put a spotlight and start looking at everything, you’re likely to find something additional.”

Some bank analysts think that Wells Fargo’s problems have been overblown. The fact that new issues are coming to light now is not surprising, given the bank’s desire to comprehensively change its culture and flush out any past wrongdoing, said Marty Mosby, an analyst at Vining Sparks.

“They’re making sure there’s no stone left unturned,” Mr. Mosby said.

But Ms. Bush, of NAB Research, thinks the problems still being investigated will continue to haunt

“I think they’re moving as quickly as they can to uncover everything, but Tim Sloan has a tiger by the tail here,” she said. “He still doesn’t know yet how big the tiger is.”


Michael Corkery contributed reporting. 

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Fri, September 01 2017. 14:30 IST
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