Given the seemingly unceasing stream of scandal that has flowed out of Warren Buffett’s favorite bank, Wells Fargo, it’s hardly surprising that after doing everything from illegally repossessing the cars of American soldiers to fraudulently “cross-selling” credit cards and other products to millions of customers, the bank is now being called out for adding opaque products to the accounts of hundreds of thousands of customers – for services like pet insurance and legal services – without first explaining how to use them.
And in the latest sign that Trump appointee Mick Mulvaney is keeping the pressure on, the CFPB is investigating how Wells collected fees for these so-called “add-on products”, and recently prompted it to refund millions of dollars to customers. News of the bank’s latest scandal comes just days after Wells took a $619 million charge in the second quarter to refund customers for overcharging in its foreign-exchange, wealth management and auto- and mortgage-lending units. The bank also agreed to a $1 billion settlement with the CFPB in April – the largest ever levied by the agency – over its failure to manage risk.
Unsurprisingly, the bank has been aware of these issues for some time:
Wells Fargo has known there could be problems with add-on products for some time. The bank received a consent order from the OCC focusing on add-on products in June 2015, according to people familiar with the matter. Other large U.S. banks, including Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. , paid more than $700 million each in regulatory settlements related to add-on products in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Wells Fargo disclosed in an August 2017 securities filing that it was reviewing add-on products, such as identity theft and debt-protection products, and said it had “begun remediation efforts where we have identified impacted customers.”
The add-on product issues are in some ways similar to problems Wells Fargo has had with so-called aftermarket products sold to auto-loan customers through third-party firms.
The bank disclosed in May remediations and cash adjustments for improper charges to auto-loan customers have risen to around $188 million. All told, the refunds related to add-on products could exceed that amount, according to people familiar with the matter.
In 2017 the bank hired Ernst & Young to review around 15 to 20 products out of the roughly 85 different add-on products Wells Fargo offered, some of the people said. The firm examined the level of customer complaints related to products, claim levels, the ease with which coverage could be started and stopped and their transparency, one of the people said.
Some add-on products—certain types of homeowners insurance or auto insurance—were deemed appropriate, the people said. Others, like pet insurance or products related to home warranties, fell into a gray area, the people added.
In most cases, customers were aware that the products were being added to their bills. But billing, and the bank’s instructions about how to access them, remained opaque.
Customers were usually aware a product or service was added, and some products, such as insurance, involved an application process. But billing wasn’t always transparent: Some customers, for example, weren’t aware they would be charged at the end of a free-trial period, the people said.
Ernst & Young worked with Wells Fargo to refund some customers for products, the people said.
Insurance add-on products are proving difficult to sort out. Wells Fargo works with around a dozen different insurance vendors for life-insurance products, including policies for accidental death and dismemberment.
Vendors include insurance giants such Allstate Corp. , American International Group Inc. and Chubb Ltd. , the person said. In some cases, policies were sold to the bank’s mortgage customers by a third party but charges appeared on their mortgage bills, the person added.
Fortunately for consumers, it appears Mulvaney’s CFPB is taking its investigation into Wells seriously (despite warnings from Elizabeth Warren and others that the Trump administration would give the bank a pass). Meanwhile, the Fed’s “shocking” crackdown on the bank – it capped its balance sheet at end-2017 levels – has already been exposed as toothless.
But for consumers who still do their banking with Wells, rest assured: There are plenty of other banks who will lend you money and take your deposits without trying to defraud you at seemingly every turn.