Concerns grow over sales tactics in banking industry in US

By Jonnelle Marte

Wells Fargo is hardly alone in aggressively pushing accounts, industry veterans say. Photo / AP
Wells Fargo is hardly alone in aggressively pushing accounts, industry veterans say. Photo / AP

For Oscar Garza, career success was measured one account at a time. The Chase personal banker said he had a month to persuade customers to open 40 checking or savings accounts and 15 credit cards. Meeting that goal would mean an extra $800, but failure could lead to his termination.

"You either do this or you're out," Garza said.

The stakes were so high, Garza says, that his managers encouraged him to enter false income information or to accept questionable identification documents in order to speed approval for new accounts. Other times, he said, he would run a customer's credit history without their permission to determine if they qualified for a credit card.

Such corner-cutting sales tactics - and worse - have become a new flash point in the debate over whether, eight years after the financial crisis, US regulators are doing enough to hold Wall Street accountable for bad behavior.

Wells Fargo, the country's largest retail bank and an institution once thought above the fray of financial crisis era scandals, has been under fire this week after acknowledging it had fired 5,300 employees over the past five years for opening up to 2 million sham accounts customers didn't ask for. The San Francisco-based bank, which did not admit wrongdoing, agreed to pay a $185 million fine and now finds itself in the crosshairs of a possible criminal investigation by two different federal prosecutors.

The bank's longtime chief executive, John Stumpf, is set to appear before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday to explain how such a massive scheme was able to fester for years, and Wells Fargo's troubles are now fodder for the presidential campaign trail.

Wells Fargo is hardly alone in aggressively pushing accounts, industry veterans say. Consumers have filed more than 31,000 complaints since 2011 about the opening, closing and management of their accounts and issues dealing with unauthorized credit cards, according to an analysis of complaints filed with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The complaints name many of the nation's largest institutions. The banks say many of the complaints are unfounded, or the result of identify theft. Few, they said, are related to outright fraud; some are complaints about unauthorized credit checks. Several institutions echoed Wells Fargo in saying they are regularly reviewing and improving their training and compliance programs to deter wrongdoing.

But critics say consumers often are being steered into accounts and services they don't need, fueled by a business culture that places unreasonable demands on employees to plug products in order to drive revenue at a time when banking margins are thin.

"Extremely unreasonable sales goals and collection quotas" are the biggest issues facing bank employees, said Erin Mahoney, a coordinator for the Committee for Better Banks, a labor coalition made up of bank employees, community groups and unions that formed in 2013. "We have stories from every bank. It goes well beyond Wells Fargo."

Efforts to combat the problem have been episodic, and few top executives have been held accountable. Regulators fined Santander Bank $10 million in July for working with a vendor that allegedly enrolled customers in overdraft protection services they never authorized. Last year, Citibank and its subsidiaries were ordered to pay $700 million to consumers for allegations they misrepresented the cost and benefits of credit card add-ons. And PayPal was ordered to pay $25 million in fines and customer refunds for claims consumers were unknowingly given credit accounts. All three settlements contained no admission of wrongdoing.

Taken together, such incidents expose a potential vulnerability in the nation's banking system that has generated far less attention from authorities than, say, periodic warnings about the threat of cybercrime and identity theft. It's not just outsiders who represent a threat, but front-line workers who have access to personal records.

Garza, the former JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker, has recounted his experiences with lax oversight in various media accounts and in a June presentation before members of Congress. At the time he worked for the banking giant in Dallas, he said in an interview he made just $11 an hour. The bonus he could claim for reaching his monthly goals for new accounts helped keep him off public assistance.

"You make a determination, a hard one, and say do I take this ID and meet my monthly quotas and put food on the table?," said Garza.

After two years at the bank, Garza said he quit in 2013. He now works for a phone company.

Chase said it has no record of problems with Garza and that its policy is to move swiftly to terminate employees who encourage illegal behavior. It said it uses sales targets to award bonuses, not to punish.

"We reward our bankers for great customer experiences and when they help customers get products that they need and use," said Patricia Wexler, a spokeswoman for Chase.

At the center of the bad behavior appears to be an effort by banks to persuade customers to sign up for multiple products, known as "cross selling." A customer who opened a checking account, for instance, would be encouraged to consider a credit card or savings account. Someone with a mortgage may be asked to open checking account. The simple sales strategy became a profit center for many banks amid historically low interest rates and tighter banking industry regulations, analysts say.

The "aggressive sales metrics and incentives programs" used by retail banks often encourage workers to sell products to customers even when they may not be a good fit or the paperwork is incomplete, the National Employment Law Project said in a report released this summer.

Ruth Landaverde, who spent five years as a customer representative and personal banker for Bank of America in Los Angeles, recalls a push from the company to move customers from checking accounts that charged no monthly fees to more complex accounts that did charge fees. "How is that going to benefit the client?" said Landaverde, 34, who also spent more than a year as a sales representative at Wells Fargo.

She says she heard from several Spanish-speaking customers who did not understand that the new accounts would charge fees.Others said they received credit cards they did not ask for. Landaverde was dismissed from Bank of America after she was investigated over questions about an account she opened for a friend. Bank of America declined to comment.

Several banks insist their systems are sound. Some say many of the complaints filed with federal regulators stem of problems that originated with partners-an overly aggressive retail clerk, for instance, who signs up a customer for a store credit card that is ultimately managed by a bank. In some cases, customers complain about being issued cards they didn't authorize when in reality the store just changed vendors, turning a store card from Visa into one from American Express, for instance.

Wells Fargo is considered among the most aggressive in cross-selling services. It has long been known for an initiative known as "Gr-eight" or "Eight is Great," reflecting its goal to have customers use an average of eight of its products, up from about six.

"If we stay squarely focused on our customers, cross-selling them, helping them, we'll win,"Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said March 2010 speech to investors.

That push helped turn Wells Fargo into a Wall Street darling. The firm's return on common equity - a key metric of profitability - stands at nearly 12 percent, compared with 7 percent at Citigroup and 10 percent at JP Morgan.

"It has always stood out for financial performance and relatively little regulatory trouble," said Erik Oja, an equity analyst for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

But, according to court filings, that focus on cross selling came with aggressive new sales goals.

"In order to achieve its goal of selling a high number of 'solutions' to each customer, Wells Fargo imposes unrealistic sales quotas on its employees, and has adopted policies that have, predictably and naturally, driven its bankers to engage in fraudulent behavior to meet those unreachable goals," stated a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Los Angeles City Attorney.

Wells Fargo says it started to notice a problem too. Starting in 2011, Wells Fargo officials say they recognized some of itheir employees were breaking the rules in order to meet sales goals. In some cases, the employee would create a phony email address - noname@wellsfargo.com was often used, according to regulators - in order to get credit for setting up an online account the customer didn't request. Other times, the employees would take money from an established account and create a new one.

It initially treated these cases as "employee misconduct," a company spokeswoman said, firing the worker. But Wells Fargo soon realized customers were being harmed by the conduct, incurringmaintenance charges and latefees for accounts they didn't realize they had. Over the next four years, the bank says it fired roughly 1,000 employees a year for such conduct and launched an aggressive effort to stamp out such behavior.

"On average 1 percent [of employees] have not done the right thing and we terminated them. I don't want them here if they don't represent the culture of the company," Stumpf, the company's chief executive, said in an interview.

Wells Fargo officials have blamed rogue or lower-level employees for the misconduct. But earlier this week, the bank said it would eliminate its sales goals by the end of the year, saying that while few employees crossed the line, it wasn't worth the risk.

But the scale of the abuse, about 1 percent of the company's workers every year, has stunned lawmakers and prompted calls for the company's top executives to either step down or forfeit some of the millions in bonuses they earn every year. Stumpf, for example, made $19 million last year, including more than $10 million in performance pay.

Now, many are asking how could problems have persisted for so long without top executives and regulators taking quicker action.

"Where were the internal controls? This stuff was not sophisticated, why weren't there red flags, why weren't they catching this?"said Sheila Bair, former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a banking regulator.

- Washington Post

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