O’Connor: Bank scam? I won’t even mention it

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Wells Fargo has fired more than 5,300 workers who — under threats of firing and lost bonuses if they didn’t meet sky-high sales quotas — created more than 2 million phony bank accounts. The bank will pay fines of $185 million and has set aside $5 million for customer refunds.

The action is historic because $100 million in fines will be paid to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the federal agency tasked with protecting bank customers and other potential victims of the financial “services” industry. This is the largest penalty imposed since the bureau opened in 2011.

This also is a record that is nowhere near likely to stand as long as the Guinness World Record for the longest ramp jump by a monster truck — 237-feet, 7-inches, by Joe Sylvester and his 10,000-pound truck, Bad Habit in Pennsylvania — in September 2013.

Call me cynical, if you will — but I expect our corporate banksters won’t need more than three years before they manage to leap far above Wells Fargo’s record fine.

Actually, he’s REALLY cynical

This would be the perfect time for an extended rant about the ongoing bad habits of our biggest financial flim-flammers and the ongoing negligence of regulators and law-enforcement officials when it comes to punishing such fraud.

I could, for example, note that in opening these bogus accounts, money was taken from the legitimate accounts of customers. If a group of bank executives did this on their own, it would be theft. But when they pressure low-level service workers to do it as part of an ongoing corporate scam, their company pays a simple fine.

I could mention that, once again, regulators discovered all manner of criminal activity, but couldn’t manage to find any actual criminals to face charges and maybe even — heaven forefend — jail time.

But I’m not going to do that.

I could point out that this “historic” fine won’t matter a whit to the bank. Wells Fargo raked in $84 billion in revenue during the past 12 months — more than $230 million a day. That makes “the largest-ever fine in the history of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau” a little more than a speed bump on the road to Wells Fargo’s next mauling of its customers.

But I’m not going to do that.

I could mention that Wells Fargo says that, so far, refunds to wronged customers average $25. While that may cover a bounced-check fee the bank charged on a bogus account, that doesn’t cover other money those customers paid when the businesses on the receiving end of those bad checks charged them fees or penalties.

I also could mention that it doesn’t make customers whole for the time they spent to untangle the countless hassles that stem from someone opening fraudulent accounts in your name, of having your identity stolen, or of seeing your credit score decline and the amount of interest you pay on a mortgage or other loan increased.

But I’m not going to do that.

I’m not going to mention that some of the real victims here are the outcast workers who were threatened with firing if they didn’t do whatever it took to gin up new accounts and then were fired for doing exactly that. I’m not going to mention the 2013 Los Angeles Times story that quoted branch manager Rita Murillo, whose regional bosses, “required hourly conferences on her Florida branch's progress toward daily quotas for opening accounts.” Speaking with the Times after she’d resigned, Murillo also told the newspaper, “We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald's.”

I’m not going to ask whether Wells Fargo prevented those fired workers from collecting unemployment insurance or how, John G. Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo since 2007, gets to keep his job and his $23 million paycheck.

Nope, not gonna do it!

I’m not even going to note that Wells Fargo ought to be a three-strikes-plus offender in light of the bank’s Wikipedia entry, which mentions that since 2010 the bank has settled charges and paid fines for gouging customers with spurious overdraft fees, fraudulent foreclosure servicing and ignoring money laundering by drug traffickers.

What I AM going to mention is that our big banks have an ongoing problem when it comes to treating their own customers as anything other than marks to be hustled or turkeys to be plucked.

I AM going to mention that regulators and legislators alike have no appetite for breaking up these big banks or hitting their wrong-doing executives with prison terms, and that I suspect it stems from generous campaign contributions.

So I AM going to mention that when it comes to these big banks, it’s just a matter of time before the next big rip-off, and that bank customers should vote with their wallets to avoid being victimized.

And I AM going to make a point of mentioning that you easily find a convenient, nonprofit credit union at www.mycreditunion.gov or www.culookup.com. And that if you don’t like how your credit union is run, you can get elected to its board.

I AM going to mention that, since no one seems to be able to protect us from these predatory banksters, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.

And one more thing, I AM going to mention: According to a statement about the settlement issued by Wells Fargo, “Our entire culture is centered on doing what is right for our customers.”


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”