How the Wells Fargo Unauthorized Accounts Crackdown Affects Customers

The bank says $5 million has been set aside for restitution so far.

ByABC News
September 9, 2016, 2:47 PM

— -- Wells Fargo has been fined a combined total of $185 million and the bank has fired 5,300 employees, authorities announced late Thursday.

An investigation by the bank under the watch of federal and Los Angeles authorities found that "hundreds of thousands of unauthorized deposit accounts" and "tens of thousands of credit cards" had been opened or applied for at Wells Fargo on behalf of customers who hadn't asked for them over a five-year period -- for a total of more than 2 million unauthorized accounts, authorities said.

The bank said in a statement that it regrets and takes responsibility "for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request." A company spokesperson told ABC News that the bank is not aware of any criminal charges against the bank or individuals associated with it.

Here's a breakdown of what happened and what it means for customers.

Why were the falsely-created accounts opened?

The workers were opening and funding accounts with cash from customers' existing accounts in order to "satisfy sales goals and earn financial rewards under the bank's incentive-compensation program," according to the Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney.

In the consent order, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal watchdog agency, said that the bank "sought to distinguish itself in the marketplace as a leader in 'cross-selling' banking products and services to its existing customers," and in order to do so "set sales goals and implemented sales incentives ... in part to increase the number of banking products and services that its employees sold to its customers."

Authorities allege the employees were motivated to earn extra money in the form of commissions for increasing the number of accounts opened by existing customers.

To do this, according to the CFPB, some employees were "creating phony email addresses not belonging to consumers to enroll them in online-banking services without their knowledge or consent."

This encouraged some employees to engage "in improper sales practices" to meet the goals and gain the financial rewards.

How big was the false account fraud?

According to the CFPB consent decree, Wells Fargo conducted a review to uncover "the scope of Improper Sales Practices that occurred between May 2011 and July 2015." That analysis revealed more than 1.5 million deposit accounts "that may not have been authorized," and that may have been funded by "transferring funds from consumers' existing accounts without their knowledge or consent."

From that number, some 85,000 accounts generated fees for the bank worth about $2 million, according to the consent decree. Those fees ran the gamut from overdraft fees to monthly service fees to minimum balance penalties.

The decree also revealed the bank's analysis that "employees submitted applications for 565,443 credit-card accounts that may not have been authorized by using consumers' information without their knowledge or consent." Of those, about 14,000 accounts generated fees worth more than $400,000.

Over the period in question, at least 5,300 bank employees were fired, Wells Fargo said. However, the bank was quick to point out that this figure only represented about one percent of its workforce, and said the terminations "reflect our commitment to monitoring and addressing any inappropriate sales conduct."

Relief for customers affected

The CFPB's decree says that the bank is "in the process of refunding" the fees generated by the unauthorized deposit and credit-card accounts.

Wells Fargo officials told ABC News that the company set aside some $5 million for restitution payments and have already paid out $2.6 million of that to affected customers.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman, Aimee Worsley, told ABC News that, at this point, the bank believes it has identified and refunded all affected customers, though it welcomed customers who think they may have been affected to come forward.

Customers in California would receive a "peace of mind notice" as part of their bank statements in October, Worsley said. That notice, according to the L.A. City Attorney's settlement, will notify customers that they can come forward with concerns about their accounts and that the bank will help them close any accounts that they do not wish to keep.

The Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney, on its website, told constituents that "if you're a customer and believe that an account or credit card has been opened in your name without your authorization, please call the number on your bank statement or visit your local branch."

The attorney's office set up a hotline for Wells Fargo customers who live in Los Angeles and may have been affected, if they are unable to get help from the bank directly, or if they are the customer of another bank and believe there may be similar activity.