Wells Fargo scam latest in a string of infractions

Wells Fargo's (WFC) $185 million hit in civil penalties for secretly opening millions of accounts without customers' permission is just the latest regulatory black eye for the bank.

Wells Fargo, the biggest U.S. bank by stock market value, Thursday agreed to pay $100 million in restitution to victims to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fund, as well as a $35 million penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $50 million to the city and county of Los Angeles. The bank agreed to pay the fine in connection to actions allegedly committed by more about 5,300 to open accounts unbeknownst to customers and racking up fees as a result.

"It's serious. It shows rogue employees and management that's not effective," says Erik Oja, an analyst at S&P Global Equity Research, pointing out that at this point it's unclear how widespread this alleged fraud was. "It shows bad incentives as well."

It's just the latest of many penalties levied on Well Fargo. The bank faced or settled four key areas of litigation as of the end of 2015 including several with much larger settlements connected with:

* FHA insurance claims. Wells Fargo agreed to pay $1.2 billion in February 2016 to settle complaints from the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and Housing and Urban Development over claims associated with the bank's Federal Housing Administration loans between 2001 and 2010. The complaint suggested the bank improperly received insurance proceeds from HUD from some loans that defaulted. The complaint suggests Wells Fargo made claims for insurance for mortgages it knew didn't qualify and didn't disclose problems.

* Visa and Mastercard interchange fees. Wells Fargo is part of a group of defendants that have agreed to pay $6.6 billion on claims merchants were overcharged for credit card fees or improperly bundled other products. Wells Fargo, in addition to Visa and Mastercard, on July 13, 2012, signed an agreement to settle the allegations.

* Mortgage products. Wells Fargo, as well as firms it has previously acquired, continue to be investigated for alleged wrongdoing in making home loans during the housing boom of the middle of the 2000s. Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $10 billion in fines in the past eight years with a vast majority of those being associated with mortgage investigations, says Robert Hockett, professor of law at Cornell Law. The largest of those was a $5.4 billion fine in February 2012, Hockett says.

* Order of posting. Wells Fargo in August 2010 was ordered to pay remediation of $203 million connected to the way the bank processed debit card payments for customers. By allowing a payment to hit the ledger before a deposit, the bank was allegedly able to generate overdraft fees. Several of these cases were still pending at the end of last year. Wells Fargo filed a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision but is still awaiting word, according to its annual regulatory filing.

Wells Fargo in its regulatory filing says it has reserved for losses associated with these cases. "Although there can be no assurance as to the ultimate outcome, Wells Fargo and/or our subsidiaries have generally denied, or believe we have a meritorious defense and will deny, liability in all significant litigation pending against us," the filing says.

Regarding the latest settlement connected with the secret account openings, Wells Fargo spokeswoman Richele Messick said Wells Fargo had already refunded in the first quarter any associated fees prior to the settlement. The total repaid to customers was $2.6 million. The bank has since "strengthened our policies" regarding the opening of new accounts, Messick says. Consumers should check their accounts and call Wells Fargo with any questions, she says.

Wells Fargo isn't alone in facing regulatory scrutiny that has led to large fines. Wells Fargo ranks just fourth among global banks in terms of total value of fines paid over the past eight years at $10 billion, Hockett says. Bank of America (BAC), JP Morgan Chase (JPM) and Citigroup (C) have paid more, $58 billion, $31 billion and $13 billion, respectively, during the same period.

The latest Wells Fargo alleged scam, however, opens a new front the types of frauds banks are accused of, Hockett says. More investigation is likely ongoing and will be critical to understanding how high in the organization the shadow account openings were known about and why it wasn't being monitored, Hockett says.

But most other cases of recent alleged bank fraud are usually connected with mortgage lending or areas far from consumers and more associated with esoteric manipulations of interest rates, Hockett says. "What's surprising is that with this latest scandal, it's fraud with the garden variety types of accounts," he says.

TOP FINES PAID BY BANKS OVER THE PAST EIGHT YEARS

Bank, Symbol, Cumulative fines ($ billions), Revenue TTM ($ billions)

Bank of America, BAC, $58, $76.0

JP Morgan Chase, JPM, $31, $88.1

Citigroup, C, $13, $65.1

Wells Fargo, WFC, $10, $84.2

BNP Paribas, ENXTPA:BNP, $9, $44.8

Source: Robert Hockett (professor of law Cornell Law), S&P Global Market Intelligence

* Trailing 12 months

USA Today


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