PD Editorial: Opening the courthouse door to defrauded consumers

Wells Fargo & Co. executives probably hoped the worst was behind them when they paid $185 million to settle a case accusing the bank of opening up to 2.1 million bogus accounts.

But new revelations keep coming.

Consumer groups now say as many as 3.5 million accounts were created without the knowledge or consent of Wells Fargo customers by bank employees tasked to meet unrealistic sales quotas.

And, as Staff Writer Paul Payne reported this week, employees of the San Francisco-based banking giant may have gone to astonishing lengths to fulfill those goals and qualify for bonuses.

A former employee at a Wells Fargo branch in Petaluma said his colleagues frequently rounded up day laborers at a nearby convenience store and drove them to the bank to sign them up for checking and savings accounts. “My colleagues constantly went to and from this location to try to meet their sales goals,” Denny Russo said in a sworn statement that’s part of a shareholder lawsuit against the bank.

Russo said the practice was “widespread throughout California” and, when he complained to his managers, they cited “tremendous pressure” to increase sales.

Wells Fargo executives say the bank wants to win back the trust of its customers.

So far, however, they won’t consider one thing that might help restore that trust: allowing customers to pursue their grievances in a public court rather than a private - and secret - arbitration proceeding.

An arbitration requirement is tucked into the fine print of account applications, a common practice among financial institutions, and Wells Fargo has had some success enforcing the requirement in court.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would open the courthouse to victims in cases in which a financial institution has acted without a customer’s consent or by unlawfully using personal information - a practice commonly called identity theft.

Dodd, who has firsthand experience with private arbitration stemming from a dispute over a real estate sale some years ago, says “there’s an implicit bias to the person paying the bill.”

Despite that, Dodd doesn’t want to outlaw mandatory arbitration, which he described in an interview as quicker, more efficient and less expensive than going to court. He does want to send a message to financial institutions that they must handle their customers’ personal information with care, “and if they don’t, they can be in trouble.”

Senate Bill 33 could come up for a Senate floor vote as early as today. But with opposition from the California Bankers Association and other business groups that strongly favor arbitration over litigation, especially class-action lawsuits, passage isn’t assured in the Senate or the Assembly.

These weren’t victimless crimes. Many people were unwittingly hit with annual fees, over-draft protection charges, finance charges, late fees and other costs for accounts they didn’t open or authorize.

Moreover, the bank may have delayed detection of the scheme for years by steering early complaints into arbitration.

With the Trump administration trying to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, states need to take up the slack. Dodd’s bill, which would create a narrow exception to mandatory arbitration, triggered only in cases of institutional fraud, is the kind of help consumers could use.

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