On September 8, 2016, Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s oldest and largest banks, admitted in a settlement with regulators that it had created as many as two million accounts for customers without their permission. This was fraud, pure and simple. It seems to have been caused by a culture in the bank that made unreasonable demands upon employees. Wells Fargo agreed to pay $185 million in fines and penalties.
Employees had been urged to “cross-sell.” If a customer had one type of account with Wells Fargo, then top brass reasoned, they should have several. Employees were strongly incentivized, through both positive and negative means, to sell as many different types of accounts to customers as possible. “Eight is great” was a motto. But does the average person need eight financial products from a single bank? As things developed, when employees were unable to make such sales, they just made the accounts up and charged customers whether they had approved the accounts or not. The employees used customers’ personal identification numbers without their knowledge to enroll them in various products without their knowledge. Victims were frequently elderly or Spanish speakers.
Matthew Castro, whose father was born in Colombia, felt so bad about pushing sham accounts onto Latino customers than he tried to lessen his guilt by doing volunteer work. Other employees were quoted as saying “it’s beyond embarrassing to admit I am a current employee these days.”
Still other employees were moved to call company hotlines or otherwise blow the whistle, but they were simply ignored or oftentimes punished, frequently by being fired. One employee who sued to challenge retaliation against him was “uncomfortable” and “unsettled” by the practices he saw around him, which prompted him to speak out. “This is a fraud, I cannot be a part of that,” the whistleblower said.
Early prognostications were that CEO John Stumpf would not lose his job over the fiasco. However, as time went on and investigations continued, the forms and amount of wrongdoing seemed to grow and grow. Evidence surfaced that the bank improperly changed the terms of mortgage loans, signed customers up for unauthorized life insurance policies, overcharged small businesses for credit-card processing, and on and on.
In September of 2016, CEO Stumpf appeared before Congress and was savaged by Senators and Representatives of both parties, notwithstanding his agreement to forfeit $41 million in pay. The members of Congress denounced Wells Fargo’s actions as “theft,” “a criminal enterprise,” and an “outrage.” Stumpf simultaneously took “full responsibility,” yet blamed the fraud on ethical lapses of low-level bankers and tellers. He had, he said, led the company with courage. Nonetheless, by October of 2016 Stumpf had been forced into retirement and replaced by Tim Sloan.
Over the next several months, more and more allegations of wrongdoing arose. The bank had illegally repossessed cars from military veterans. It had modified mortgages without customer authorization. It had charged 570,000 customers for auto insurance they did not need. It had ripped off small businesses by charging excessive credit card fees. The total number of fake accounts rose from two million to 3.5 million. The bank also wrongly fined 110,000 mortgage clients for missing a deadline even though the party at fault for the delay was Wells Fargo itself.
At its April 2017 annual shareholders meeting, the firm faced levels of dissent that a Georgetown business school professor, Sandeep Dahiya, called “highly unusual.”
By September, 2017, Wells Fargo had paid $414 million in refunds and settlements and incurred hundreds of millions more in attorneys’ and other fees. This included $108 million paid to the Department of Veterans Affairs for having overcharged military veterans on mortgage refinancing.
In October 2017, new Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan was told by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, that he should be fired: “You enabled this fake-account scandal. You got rich off it, and then you tried to cover it up.” Republicans were equally harsh. Senator John Kennedy Texas said: “I’m not against big. With all due respect, I’m against dumb.”
Sloan was still CEO when the company had its annual shareholders meeting in April 2018. Shareholder and protestors were both extremely angry with Wells Fargo. By then, the bank had paid an additional $1 billion fine for abuses in mortgage and auto lending. And, in an unprecedented move, the Federal Reserve Board had ordered the bank to cap its asset growth. Disgust with Wells Fargo’s practices caused the American Federation of Teachers, to cut ties with the bank. Some whistleblowers resisted early attempts at quiet settlements with the bank, holding out for a public admission of wrongdoing.
In May 2018, yet another shoe dropped. Wells Fargo’s share price dropped on news that the bank’s employees improperly altered documents of its corporate customers in an attempt to comply with regulatory directions related to money laundering rules.
Ultimately, Wells Fargo removed its cross-selling sales incentives. CEO Sloan, having been informed that lower level employees were suffering stress, panic attacks, and other symptoms apologized for the fact that management initially blamed them for the results of the toxic corporate culture, admitting that cultural weaknesses had caused a major morale problem.