Wells Fargo Bank employees driven by strict sales pressure issued unwanted credit cards and opened unauthorized accounts that charged customers fees and damaged their credit, according to a lawsuit filed by the city of Los Angeles.
The civil complaint filed Monday contends the largest California-based bank violated state and federal laws by misusing confidential information and failing to notify customers when personal information was breached, City Attorney Mike Feuer said at a Tuesday news conference.
"In its push for growth, Wells Fargo often elevated its profits over the legal rights of its customers," Feuer said.
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The bank has blamed the problems on a few rogue employees who have been disciplined or fired and said it would defend itself.
"Wells Fargo's culture is focused on the best interests of its customers and creating a supportive, caring and ethical environment for our team members," the San Francisco-based bank said in a statement.
The city's investigation found only token efforts to prevent wrongdoing, according to court papers.
The complaint was filed under a law that allows attorneys representing large California cities to seek relief for unfair business practices for customers statewide.
The lawsuit seeks a court order ending the alleged practices along with penalties up to $2,500 for every violation and restitution for affected customers.
Feuer said the number of possible violations would be determined during a discovery process. If the suit prevails in Los Angeles County Superior Court, it would apply to county residents and possibly some customers farther away, he said.
Frank Ahn, who owns a convenience store and a coin-operated laundry in the San Fernando Valley, said he was repeatedly pressured over four years to open additional accounts at Wells Fargo. When he declined, the bank opened three savings accounts in his name anyway, Ahn said.
After he complained, the accounts were deleted, only to reappear again months later, he said.
"I just feel like every time I go to the branch, it's a battle with them," Ahn said at the news conference. "I've had more than 10 accounts at Wells Fargo. I only need one."
The bank had a culture of high-pressure sales that pushed employees toward fraudulent conduct," Feuer said. Employees misused customers' confidential information and often failed to close unauthorized accounts despite complaints, the suit said.
Some employees raided customer accounts for money to open more accounts, according to court papers.
"The result is that Wells Fargo has generated a virtual fee-generating machine, through which its customers are harmed, its employees take the blame, and Wells Fargo reaps the profit," the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit focuses mostly on what's known in the industry as bundling, also called cross-selling, where bank employees try to sell multiple bank products to a customer who may have just come in to open an account or apply for a credit card.
Bundling and cross-selling has been a widely accepted practice in consumer banking for years, mostly without controversy.
Wells Fargo has had a long history of cross-selling and bundling, averaging more than six products per household, according to its latest annual report.
The lawsuit says Wells Fargo executives pushed employees to sell more than 10 products to customers based on whether they were a regular customer, had wealth-management accounts or were a business owner.
Branch employees had to sell a certain number of financial products each day, according to the complaint, even if there wasn't the foot traffic available to meet those quotas. Employees were also encouraged to sell multiple products to family members and friends to meet quotas.