Three things the Wells Fargo scandal teaches us

Banking customers should always be vigilant. 

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
A Wells Fargo Bank iIn Charlotte, N.C.

You could be excused for thinking that one of the basic rules of running a bank is “don’t touch customer accounts without customer consent” — but that’s exactly what happened at Wells Fargo locations across the country over the past five years. On September 8, 2016, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a $185 million fine against Wells Fargo for the fraudulent creation of millions of credit and deposit accounts by its employees, who abused their access to existing customer information in order to meet aggressive sales quotas and incentives.

With the revelation of such widespread and prolonged misbehavior by a giant of U.S. retail banking, it’s important to ask what this episode might reveal about the need for vigilant consumer habits.

Don’t Get Cross-Sold

In order to increase deposits, fees and customer loyalty, Wells Fargo pressured its staff to maximize the “cross-selling” of products to its existing customers. This meant persuading each visiting customer to open additional banking “solutions”, including deposit accounts and credit cards.

When you walk into your bank for a routine transaction, you may be accosted by a banker interested in selling you on an exciting new account or credit opportunity. Don’t be led around: choosing the right checking account or credit card requires more than just a 20-minute sales pitch. The only accounts you should deal with during your visit are the ones you had in mind before walking in the door.

Study Monthly Statements and Daily Balances

Wells Fargo employees also signed customers up for credit cards they never received, and withdrew customer money from existing accounts to fund new accounts. Customers were never informed about these products, but they still paid the annual and monthly account fees tied to each new account.

Such practices also cost Wells Fargo customers unjustified overdraft penalties. With money secretly transferred out of their old accounts, many people spent more than they now had in the bank. Incredibly, Wells Fargo charged customers the usual overdraft fees, even though the deficits were due to illegal tampering by the bank’s own employees.

While the Wells Fargo scandal stands out as unusually invasive behavior, every bank customer should scan monthly statements and stay familiar with the pattern and quantity of the listed transactions. Unexplainable charges should be a red flag, usually caused by a third party, but possibly even from the bank itself, whether intentional or not. As for overdrafts, online and mobile banking tools for tracking your balance can help you keep that figure fresh in your mind every day and especially before large purchases.

Tackle Problems Swiftly and Often

In total, Wells Fargo counted around 2.5 million false accounts created by its employees. With such widespread abuse, at least a few sharp-eyed customers were bound to take notice — but their early attempts at legal action fell flat because of a pre-dispute arbitration agreement in deposit account contracts, in which customers forfeit their right to sue the bank.

If you bank with a major institution like Chase or Bank of America, you have probably signed off on similar limits to your legal rights. Fortunately, that doesn’t leave you completely helpless. Making noise immediately and frequently is your greatest asset as a customer.

Whether you spot a strange transaction in your statement or find your debit card regularly disabled for “unusual activity”, calling your bank or visiting in person is often faster and more effective at resolving the issue than any amount of emailing or online chat services. If you struggle with one avenue, attack the problem from multiple angles. Call, but also send emails and speak with bankers face-to-face. Be relentless.

And of course, if all else fails, know your options for alternative banking. The rapid rise of online-only banks, local banks, and credit unions means that you have more choices than ever when it comes to keeping your money in trustworthy hands.

This article first appeared in ValuePenguin.

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