What the boss says goes: Wells Fargo in hot water for illegal practices

Sean McCarthy,
Staff Writer

Wells Fargo has been in hot water for the past year: two former Wells Fargo employees sued the company in May 2015 in a $2.6 billion class-action lawsuit, and the bank settled with those employees in September for just $190 million.

The bank fired 5,300 employees who they say acted independently when they used fake email accounts to open bank accounts for people that they knew. Those accounts went unmanaged and caused people to lose money due to account fees. Part of the settlement refunded all fees by the fake accounts and incurred by Wells Fargo account-holders.

I know a few things about these types of accounts. When I was a banker at Wells Fargo, bankers in my retail branch in San Francisco were expected to open eight accounts every single day in order to maintain the minimum accepted level. I had previously worked as a teller for a year before securing the position as a banker for four months.

Wells Fargo pressured employees to reach extremely aggressive sales goals in order to keep their jobs. These accounts included savings, home mortgage, credit card, personal loan and lines of credit. Anything lower than eight accounts a day and the employee would be subject to punishment in the form of demotion or termination.

Well-established bankers at my branch would sit down with up to 15 people a day if they had appointments. At that rate, those bankers would need to open up an account for every other person they saw during the day, which is unrealistic. For unestablished bankers such as myself, we were forced to cheat in order to keep our job with decent pay. We did so because there was a small bonus at the end of every quarter if we exceeded our sales goals.

When employees failed to reach those goals, they could have been demoted, forced to resign, like myself, or fired. These goals required bankers to open more accounts for customers per day than many would even sit down with that day.

The issue is that the instructions came from the top down in the form of a sales goal created by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. During Senate hearings on September 29, Senator Elizabeth Warren tore into Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about his shady business practices. She said that he should be criminally tried and have all of his money that he made over his five-year tenure taken away.

He will not be tried, but he received a $47 million fine through his unvested stocks, and a forfeiture of his $2.8 million salary for the year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency that protects consumers against deceptive financial practices.

Our boss at Wells Fargo encouraged us to try different approaches to open accounts. We were asked to telemarket, walk around San Francisco State and ask our friends and family. Telemarketing rarely worked and many students opened accounts that were free to them because they went to San Francisco State.

However, they weren’t told that once they graduated, the account conditions would change and they would begin to incur a $12 monthly fee for an account that had been free to them for years.

My friends and family allowed me to open accounts for them when I could not hit my sales goals. They saved my job for months, but they could not continue to save me. After opening the first “pack” — a checking, saving and debit card — for my friends, I noticed that they would become hesitant about opening a second and resistant to opening a third. The process where we made multiple unnecessary accounts for people was called “gaming,” and we were encouraged to do it to keep our jobs.

My branch manager told us not to game the system right after she would ask me to call my mom and dad again to open another pack. She had her own unrealistic sales goals to reach that her bosses told her to hit in order to continue to rise through the corporate ranks.

Bankers often opened multiple accounts for each other and for the tellers. When I was a teller, I had 19 accounts open at one time. When clients had issues with their accounts, we were told to open a new one for them instead.

These issues could be anything from monthly service fees for the account to overdraft penalties. Our bosses would get rid of an overdraft fee if we opened a new account for the person, which people often did. However, sometimes people incurred fees because they had the wrong account set up for them. Those accounts could be dated accounts that were no longer offered to employees, or the customer was sold an account that had better benefits but they could not reach the minimum requirements to make it free.

I had customers who were retired and had social security as their sole income come into the bank for account fees. Management would say “why don’t you open a new account for them so they won’t get a fee,” but failed to consider these people would need to reset their social security process to the new account. That process could take weeks and the client could miss out on their social security, their lifeline. It was unethical, and this was wrong.

I could not continue to do it after just a few months. I decided to stop “gaming” and just open up accounts for people who really needed them. I became dejected and lost focus on doing the tedious parts of my job like filing the necessary paperwork when opening an account. My bosses noticed my diminished sales goals and my lack of care in the paperwork so they gave me the option to resign with severance pay. I took it.

I became happier immediately after. I no longer had to open accounts for people who no longer needed it. I no longer had to choose between doing what was right and risk getting in trouble, or doing what was wrong and thrive.

Wells Fargo knew this practice was illegal, but it encouraged its employees to take whatever actions necessary to open accounts anyway.

The former employees who sued Wells Fargo were a part of the bigger net of employees who were fired as a scapegoat. Those two employees then let the world know.