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Consumer Confidential: Did Wells Fargo go after seniors?

By David Lazarus Los Angeles Times

Wells Fargo may have gone out of its way to take senior citizens to the cleaners when the bank’s workers fraudulently opened as many as 2 million accounts without customers’ permission.

At least that’s the suspicion of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

They’ve called upon the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to determine whether seniors in particular were preyed upon because older Wells Fargo customers may have been more susceptible to manipulation or likely visited branches more frequently than tech-savvy younger people who prefer online banking.

“As Wells Fargo begins the long process of identifying and making restitution to the consumers who were defrauded, I want to ensure that seniors – who are often the targets of fraud and who also can be harder to find and make whole – are adequately protected,” McCaskill said.

She and Collins said in a letter to CFPB Director Richard Cordray that they’re concerned about “the impact this activity has had on our nation’s senior population, especially those who do not conduct their financial business on the Internet.”

Los Angeles resident Wanita Holmes, 87, says what happened to her validates the senators’ interest.

She’s been a Wells Fargo customer since her old Crocker National Bank account was transferred when Wells acquired Crocker in 1986. Holmes told me she was perfectly happy with the service she received after the merger.

A couple of years ago, though, she was worried that a scammer may have gotten access to her Wells Fargo checking account, so she stopped by a branch to close her account and open a new one with a new account number.

As Holmes tells it, a Wells Fargo employee was more than happy to help her close her old checking account and open a new one. Then things took some unexpected turns.

“She said that I’d also need to open a savings account. So I did that,” Holmes recalled. “Then she said I’d have to apply for a credit card. So I did that too.”

As the worker processed the paperwork, she asked if Holmes would like to arrange for a direct deposit of her monthly Social Security check.

“I told her absolutely not,” Holmes said. “I had that deposited at a different bank and I liked keeping it separate from my other money. I was very clear on this point.”

She said the worker acknowledged her preference, printed up a stack of documents and guided Holmes in where to affix her signature.

“I remember laughing and telling her I didn’t even know what I was signing,” Holmes said. “She laughed too and said that was OK.”

Then the first of the month rolled around. And guess what?

Holmes’ Social Security check didn’t go to its usual destination. It ended up at Wells Fargo.

She contacted the Social Security Administration to ask what happened. “They told me that they received a request from Wells Fargo to deposit my checks there,” she said.

Holmes suspects that the Wells Fargo worker slipped a permission form in with all the other documents being signed.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who sued Wells Fargo over the bogus accounts last year, said it’s hard to determine how many of the bank’s victims were seniors.

“While we found examples where seniors who were Wells Fargo customers were victims, we do not have information on how widespread the practice was or whether they were targeted for this practice,” he said.

Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action, said many people don’t include their age when filing complaints with officials, so it’s difficult to break out seniors from other fraud victims.

“We know that, generally speaking, seniors are targeted more for scams,” she said. “I don’t want to believe Wells Fargo workers were going out of their way to abuse seniors – it seems so Machiavellian. But it wouldn’t be at all surprising.”

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman declined to comment on what happened to Holmes.

Wells Fargo has said its workers started trying to boost sales by opening unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts for customers as early as 2011. Chief Executive John Stumpf told the Senate Banking Committee last week that Wells is looking into whether the illegal activity could have begun as early as 2009.

In his congressional testimony, though, Stumpf stuck to his story that senior management had no idea that thousands of bank employees were opening unauthorized accounts. He also defended the concept of “cross selling” – that is, hooking up customers with additional products and services – as a legitimate part of Wells’ business.

“Our cross-sell strategy is simply another way of saying that we provide our customers a wide variety of products that can satisfy their financial needs,” Stumpf said. “The more products a customer uses, the deeper the relationship of trust and value.”

Trust and value, that is, if the customer actually wants those products.

Holmes closed her savings account and canceled that extra credit card last year. She decided not to undo the direct deposits of her Social Security checks because it seemed like a hassle.

As far as she knows, the extra accounts didn’t result in any extra fees.

Even so, Holmes said she confronted a bank supervisor about what happened.

“I told her it seemed like they were getting bonuses for signing me up for all that,” Holmes said. “She replied that they’d never do something like that. My hand on the Bible, that’s what she said.”

About 5,300 Wells Fargo workers were fired as a result of the racket.

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