Wells Fargo & Company and its subsidiary, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., have agreed to pay $3 billion to resolve their potential criminal and civil liability stemming from a practice between 2002 and 2016 of pressuring employees to meet unrealistic sales goals that led thousands of employees to provide millions of accounts or products to customers under false pretenses or without consent, often by creating false records or misusing customers’ identities, the Department of Justice announced today.
As part of the agreements with the United States Attorney’s Offices for the Central District of California and the Western District of North Carolina, the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wells Fargo admitted that it collected millions of dollars in fees and interest to which the Company was not entitled, harmed the credit ratings of certain customers, and unlawfully misused customers’ sensitive personal information, including customers’ means of identification.
The criminal investigation into false bank records and identity theft is being resolved with a deferred prosecution agreement in which Wells Fargo will not be prosecuted during the three-year term of the agreement if it abides by certain conditions, including continuing to cooperate with further government investigations. Wells Fargo also entered a civil settlement agreement under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) based on Wells Fargo’s creation of false bank records. FIRREA authorizes the federal government to seek civil penalties against financial institutions that violate various predicate criminal offenses, including false bank records. Wells Fargo also agreed to the SEC instituting a cease-and-desist proceeding finding violations of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 thereunder. The $3 billion payment resolves all three matters, and includes a $500 million civil penalty to be distributed by the SEC to investors.
The 16-page statement of facts accompanying the deferred prosecution agreement and civil settlement agreement outlines a course of conduct over 15 years at Well Fargo’s Community Bank, which was then the largest operating segment of Wells Fargo, consistently generating more than half of the company’s revenue. The statement of facts outlines top Community Bank leaders’ knowledge of the conduct. As part of the statement of facts, Wells Fargo admitted the following:
Beginning in 1998, Wells Fargo increased its focus on sales volume and reliance on annual sales growth. A core part of this sales model was the “cross-sell strategy” to sell existing customers additional financial products. It was “the foundation of our business model,” according to Wells Fargo. In its 2012 Vision and Values statement, Wells Fargo stated: “We start with what the customer needs – not with what we want to sell them.”
But, in contrast to Wells Fargo’s public statements and disclosures about needs-based selling, the Community Bank implemented a volume-based sales model in which employees were directed and pressured to sell large volumes of products to existing customers, often with little regard to actual customer need or expected use. The Community Bank’s onerous sales goals and accompanying management pressure led thousands of its employees to engage in unlawful conduct – including fraud, identity theft and the falsification of bank records – and unethical practices to sell product of no or little value to the customer.
Many of these practices were referred to within Wells Fargo as “gaming.” Gaming strategies varied widely, but included using existing customers’ identities – without their consent – to open checking and savings, debit card, credit card, bill pay and global remittance accounts. From 2002 to 2016, gaming practices included forging customer signatures to open accounts without authorization, creating PINs to activate unauthorized debit cards, moving money from millions of customer accounts to unauthorized accounts in a practice known internally as “simulated funding,” opening credit cards and bill pay products without authorization, altering customers’ true contact information to prevent customers from learning of unauthorized accounts and prevent Wells Fargo employees from reaching customers to conduct customer satisfaction surveys, and encouraging customers to open accounts they neither wanted or needed.
The top managers of the Community Bank were aware of the unlawful and unethical gaming practices as early as 2002, and they knew that the conduct was increasing due to onerous sales goals and pressure from management to meet these goals. One internal investigator in 2004 called the problem a “growing plague.” The following year, another internal investigator said the problem was “spiraling out of control.” Even after senior managers in the Community Bank directly called into question the implementation of the cross-sell strategy, Community Bank senior leadership refused to alter the sales model, which contained unrealistic sales goals and a focus on low-quality secondary accounts.
Despite knowledge of the illegal sales practices, Community Bank senior leadership failed to take sufficient action to prevent and reduce the incidence of such practices. Senior leadership of the Community Bank minimized the problems to Wells Fargo management and its board of directors, by casting the problem as driven by individual misconduct instead of the sales model itself. Community Bank senior leadership viewed negative sales quality and integrity as a necessary byproduct of the increased sales and as merely the cost of doing business.
The deferred prosecution agreement will be in effect for three years.
Jeffrey Newman represents whistleblowers nationwide. Jeffrey.Newman1@gmail.com 617-823-3217