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Wells Fargo to pay US$3.7b over consumer law violations

Consumer banking giant Wells Fargo agreed to pay US$3.7 billion to settle a laundry list of charges that it harmed consumers through illegal fees and interest on auto loans and mortgages, as well as incorrectly applied overdraft fees against savings and chequeing accounts.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, CFPB, on Tuesday ordered Wells to repay US$2 billion to consumers and enacted a US$1.7-billion penalty against the bank. It’s the largest fine to date against any bank by the CFPB and the largest fine against Wells, which has spent years trying to rehabilitate itself after a series of scandals tied to its sales practices.

Regulators made it clear, however, that they believe Wells Fargo had not done enough to clean up its act.

“Put simply: Wells Fargo is a corporate recidivist that puts one out of three Americans at risk for potential harm,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, in a call with reporters.

Chopra said this pattern of behaviour made make it necessary for regulators to take additional actions against Wells Fargo that go beyond the US$3.7 billion in fines and penalties.

The bureau says bank’s violations impacted more than 16 million customers. In addition to improperly charging its auto loan customers with fees and interest, in some cases the bank wrongfully repossessed borrowers’ vehicles. The bank also improperly denied thousands of mortgage loan modifications to homeowners.

Wells Fargo has been repeatedly sanctioned by United States regulators for violations of consumer protections law going back to 2016, when Wells employees were found to have opened millions of accounts illegally in order to meet unrealistic sales goals. Since then, Wells executives have repeatedly said the bank is cleaning up its act, only to have the bank be found in violation of other parts of consumer protection law, including in its auto and mortgage lending businesses.

Back in 2018, Wells paid a US$1-billion penalty to cover widespread consumer law violations. That, at the time, was the largest fine to date against a bank for consumer law violations.

The bank had previously signalled to investors that it was expecting additional fines and penalties from regulators. The bank set aside US$2 billion in the third quarter to cover potential regulatory matters.

Wells remains under a Federal Reserve order forbidding it from growing any larger until the Fed deems that its corporate culture problems are resolved. That order, originally enacted in 2018, was expected to last only a year or two.

In a statement, CEO Charles Scharf said the agreement with the CFPB is part of the effort to “transform operating practices at Wells Fargo and to put these issues behind us”.

While Wells Fargo tried to frame the agreement with the CFPB as a resolution of established bad behaviour, CFPB officials said some of the violations cited in Tuesday’s order happened as recently as this year.

“This should not been seen as Wells Fargo has moved past its problems,” Chopra said.


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