Originally published by The Washington Post
On “Hit the Streets Thursday,” Wells Fargo bankers and tellers, specifically those of Latino descent, scouted the streets and Social Security offices for potential clients. Their goal: Find undocumented immigrants, take them to a local branch and persuade them to open bank accounts.
Others hit construction sites and factories, according to court documents. Knowing that undocumented workers there needed a place to cash their checks, Wells Fargo employees urged them to open new accounts while promising to waive check-cashing fees. Some offered the immigrants money to open an account.
The more people signed up, whether it was for checking and savings accounts, credit and debit cards, online banking or overdraft protection, the better. If they signed up for all of the features, even better. Each new account was considered a sale, and the more sales employees rack up, the better their future was with the company.
That’s according to former employees’ sworn statements obtained last month by a law firm that has been handling a shareholder’s lawsuit against Wells Fargo. Former bank managers, personal bankers and tellers say they were forced to resort to questionable tactics to meet the company’s unrealistic sales quotas.
Mark Molumphy, an attorney for the firm, said the sales practices, which spanned 15 years, were not a secret to the bank’s executives and should have also been known to its board members.
“The conduct we have come up with is scandalous,” another attorney, Joseph Cotchett, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s outrageous to think that regulators let the bank get away with this.”
The alarming statements are the latest in a massive scandal that continues to engulf the San Francisco-based banking giant.
In September, Wells Fargo was forced to pay $185 million in regulatory penalties following revelations that more than 2 million bank and credit card accounts were opened on behalf of customers without their knowledge. The fraudulent accounts netted more than $2 million in fees charged to customers for services they didn’t sign up for.
Wells Fargo has strongly denied the allegations from former employees.
“These allegations are inconsistent with our policies, values and the relationships we work hard to build with all parts of our community. Wells Fargo has long been committed to providing bank services to immigrants in a manner that complies fully with the law, and we have controls in place to ensure we comply with requirements,” spokesman Ancel Martinez said in a statement. “[T]hese assertions are offensive, because they run counter to the expectations of Wells Fargo, and would be in violation of policies we have in place to safeguard against abuses.”
The statements reveal that personal bankers and bank managers turned to unethical and potentially illegal ways to reach their daily quotas, while those who dared to report the bad practices were fired. They also raise questions about whether the alleged tactics may have violated federal law, which requires financial institutions to verify the identity of their customers.
Some of the practices involved creating fake bank accounts with fictitious names, and opening multiple accounts for customers, including undocumented immigrants, without their authorization, according to court documents. Federal law says that banks must first obtain information such as customers’ date of birth, address and identification number before opening accounts.
Ricky Hansen Jr., who worked for several years as a manager at Wells Fargo branches in Arizona, said in court documents he witnessed sales tactics “that started out okay but then evolved into massive fraud.”
Hansen said he discovered that one employee was opening 40 to 50 bank accounts under fake names every week, and funding those accounts by transferring other customers’ money. The employee later moved the funds back, after he’d received credit for the sales, hoping the customers didn’t notice. Hansen added that customer signatures on bank records appear to have been written by the same person using the same pen.
Still, the employee was praised by upper management, Hansen said. When he reported to the bank manager what he knew, he was told the employees’ sales were legitimate.
“You have to decide if you want a job here. You can either run with us or not,” Hansen recalled his district manager telling him, according to court records. “Play ball or get out.”
Hansen was later fired, while the employee he reported was promoted, he said.
Julia Miller, who worked at a Wells Fargo branch in Pennsylvania for eight years, said she received calls from her district manager every day, multiple times a day, to check whether daily quotas were being met.
“I was told by my supervisors to work our employees ‘like dogs’ to meet our sales goals,” Miller said, according to court records. “I was not allowed to pay my employees overtime if their quotas were not met and had to stay late to meet their sales objectives. I was personally forced to stay late and cold-call customers until the sales goals established by upper management were met.”
A branch in Wisconsin had what’s called “Call Nights.” Employees were asked to stay long after their shifts ended to call customers, said Angela Payden, a former personal banker who worked for Wells Fargo for three years. The wealthy ones are the target, and employees were urged to call them around 6 p.m., when they’re most likely in the middle of family dinners and are more likely to agree to sign up just to get off the phone. Employees signed them up for new credit card accounts with limits of $25,000 or higher, Payden said.
The emphasis was on what’s called the “Great Eight,” according to the former employees. That’s eight different products and services that employees are urged to have each customer sign up for to generate fees, Molumphy, the attorney, said.
The pressure of the job became so intense that it drove some employees to panic attacks and mental breakdowns.
Sarah Rush, who worked for United Healthcare, which contracted with Wells Fargo to provide mental health services to employees and their families, said about 90 percent of calls she received were from bank workers who were stressed out, anxious and depressed. At least one woman was suicidal, Rush said.
The practices at Wells Fargo first came to light in 2013, when the Los Angeles Times published a damning investigative report describing an aggressive sales culture that “has battered employee morale and led to unethical breaches, customer complaints and labor lawsuits.”
John Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s former chairman and chief executive, resigned in the wake of the scandal. Carrie Tolstedt, the executive in charge of Wells Fargo’s community banking division, left the company last year — with more than $120 million in retirement package. More than 5,000 low-level employees have been fired.
In February, Wells Fargo fired four executives as the company’s board of directors was completing an investigation into fake accounts believed to have been set up by low-level employees to meet sales quotas.
And in April, Wells Fargo ordered Stumpf and Tolstedt to pay a total of $75 million after the board’s six-month investigation revealed that bad sales practices stretched as far back as 2002.
Martinez, the Wells Fargo spokesman, said the company has made several changes to ensure that customers receive only the products they want.
“We continue to make additional improvements in our Retail Bank operations and we have eliminated product sales goals and introduced new compensation plan focused on customer experience for branch team members,” Martinez said.
A hearing on a motion to dismiss filed by Wells Fargo in the shareholder lawsuit is scheduled on Tuesday.
Renae Merle contributed to this story.
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