NEW YORK — Everyone hates paying bank fees. But imagine paying fees on a ghost account you didn’t even sign up for.
That’s exactly what happened to Wells Fargo customers nationwide.
On Thursday, federal regulators said Wells Fargo employees secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts — without their customers knowing it — since 2011.
The phony accounts earned the bank unwarranted fees and allowed Wells Fargo employees to boost their sales figures and make more money.
“Wells Fargo employees secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses,” Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement.
Wells Fargo confirmed to CNNMoney that it had fired 5,300 employees related to the shady behavior over the last few years. Employees went to far as to create phony PIN numbers and fake email addresses to enroll customers in online banking services, the CFPB said.
The scope of the scandal is shocking. An analysis conducted by a consulting firm hired by Wells Fargo concluded that bank employees opened up over 1.5 million deposit accounts that may not have been authorized, according to the CFPB.
The way it worked was that employees moved funds from customers’ existing accounts into newly-created accounts without their knowledge or consent, regulators say. The CFPB described this practice as “widespread” and led to customers being charged for insufficient funds or overdraft fees — because the money was not in their original accounts.
Additionally, Wells Fargo employees also submitted applications for 565,443 credit card accounts without their knowledge or consent, the CFPB said the analysis found. Roughly 14,000 of those accounts incurred over $400,000 in fees, including annual fees, interest charges and overdraft-protection fees.
The CFPB said Wells Fargo will pay “full restitutions to all victims.”
Wells Fargo is being slapped with the largest penalty since the CFPB was founded in 2011. The bank agreed to pay $185 million in fines, along with $5 million to refund customers.
“We regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request,” Wells Fargo said in a statement.
Wells Fargo is the most valuable bank in America, worth just north of $250 billion. Berkshire Hathaway, the investment firm run legendary investor Warren Buffett, is the company’s biggest shareholder.
“One wonders whether a penalty of $100 million is enough,” said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor and former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It sounds like a big number, but for a bank the size of Wells Fargo, it isn’t really.”
The CFPB declined to explain how it came up with the $100 million penalty figure.
Wells Fargo confirmed to CNNMoney that the firings represent about 1% of its workforce and took place over several years.
“At Wells Fargo, when we make mistakes, we are open about it, we take responsibility, and we take action,” the bank said in a memo to employees on Thursday.
It’s not clear when Wells Fargo hired a consulting firm to investigate the allegations, nor what triggered the response. Wells Fargo did not respond to a request for comment on this.
The CFPB declined to comment on when the investigation began and what sparked it, citing agency policy. “We don’t comment on how we uncover these matters,” a spokesman said.
As part of the settlement, Wells Fargo needs to make changes to its sales practices and internal oversight.
“Consumers must be able to trust their banks. They should never be taken advantage of,” said Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles City Attorney who joined the settlement.
Feuer’s office sued Wells Fargo in May 2015 over allegations of unauthorized accounts. After filing the suit, his office received more than 1,000 calls and emails from customers as well as current and former Wells Fargo employees about the allegations.
Even though the Wells Fargo scandal took place nationally, the settlement with L.A. requires the bank to alert all its California customers to review their accounts and shut down ones they don’t recognize or want.
“How does a bank that is supposed to have robust internal controls permit the creation of over a half-million dummy accounts?” asked Vladeck. “If I were a Wells Fargo customer, and fortunately I am not, I’d think seriously about finding a new bank.”