The number of potentially unauthorized Wells Fargo accounts has risen nearly 70 percent over the bank’s initial estimate — setting off a fresh wave of criticism from those frustrated by the bank’s slow pace in coming clean about its misdeeds.
Nearly a year after Wells Fargo’s fraudulent-account scandal burst into public view, the bank said it had turned up more than a million additional accounts that customers may not have authorized.
The news set off a fresh wave of criticism from those frustrated by the bank’s slow pace in coming clean about its misdeeds.
“Every time we get one of these announcements, the pressure rises,” said Nancy Bush, a banking-industry analyst who runs NAB Research. “How many customers, and how many employees within Wells Fargo, are coming to the conclusion, ‘I don’t need to be associated with this’?”
The findings brought the number of potentially unauthorized accounts to 3.5 million — a nearly 70 percent increase over the bank’s initial estimate.
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Wells Fargo agreed last September to pay $185 million to settle three government lawsuits over the bank’s creation of sham accounts. Thousands of employees, trying to meet aggressive sales goals, had created accounts in customers’ names without their knowledge. Workers who met the bank’s sales targets received bonuses — and those who did not risked losing their jobs.
At the time, Wells Fargo said 2.1 million suspect accounts had been opened from 2011 to mid-2015. But it also acknowledged at the time that the problems may have begun earlier, and said that it would expand its review to include accounts opened from 2009 to 2016.
Besides the additional accounts announced Thursday, the wider review uncovered a new issue: unauthorized enrollments of customers in the bank’s online bill-payment service. Wells Fargo said that it had found 528,000 cases in which customers may have been signed up without their knowledge or consent, and will refund $910,000 to customers who incurred fees or charges. The service is now free, but once carried fees for some accounts.
“We are working hard to ensure this never happens again and to build a better bank for the future,” Timothy Sloan, Wells Fargo’s chief executive, said in a statement announcing the review’s results. “We apologize to everyone who was harmed.”
But one of the bank’s fiercest critics, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., laid into it: “Unbelievable. Wells Fargo’s massive fraud is even worse than we thought.”
The scandal over the accounts — and the corporate culture that allowed them to go undetected for so long — toppled Wells Fargo’s previous chief executive, John Stumpf, and ignited an outcry from customers, lawmakers and regulators that is still roiling the bank. Several investigations by the Justice Department and state attorneys general remain in progress.
A coalition of 33 consumer groups sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to bring Wells Fargo executives back to Capitol Hill — where Stumpf was roasted last year by unhappy lawmakers, shortly before he stepped down under pressure — to answer new questions about the bank’s abuses. The bank “may have intentionally misled” lawmakers in its previous testimony, they said. Warren, who is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, also called for the committee to hold a new hearing.
Wells Fargo said it had completed its investigation into unauthorized accounts and did not expect to uncover significantly more.
“This is an important milestone to rebuild trust,” Sloan said on a call with reporters. He called the discovery of additional unauthorized accounts “a reminder of the disappointment that we caused our customers.”
The problems may have begun years before the period that the bank reviewed. Wells Fargo customers and former employees have said that they tried as far back as 2005 to alert bank executives to misdeeds by branch bankers and managers. An investigation commissioned by Wells Fargo’s board found signs of abuses that surfaced as far back as 2002.
The company said it could look back no earlier than 2009 because it did not have sufficient data on previous periods, Sloan said.
Wells Fargo has made sweeping changes in the wake of the scandal, including overhauling its executive lineup, replacing key members of its board, revamping its internal controls and risk management, and emphasizing to its bank-branch workers that it wants them to focus on customer service, not sales.
“We have no product-sales goals at all, at any level, in the community bank,” said Mary Mack, who took over last year as the head of that division.
Mack said she was focused on spreading the message to all of her employees that “long-term, sustainable growth is delivered through a meaningful relationship with customers.”
Still, the damage to Wells Fargo’s reputation will be hard to repair, said Stephen Beck, the founder of cg42, a strategy company that studies banks’ brand perception.
“Their long-term potential is really hampered,” Beck said. “Will there be a tipping point, where the people at risk — the customers who say they might leave — begin to act on that?”
Pat Piper, a 14-year Wells Fargo customer in Tonasket, Okanogan County, said she hit that point Thursday, as word spread of the newly found fraudulent accounts. She said the news “gave me the nudge I needed” to move her checking and savings accounts to another bank.
“I don’t trust them,” Piper said. “Once they get caught, they say, ‘Whoops, we’re not going to do that anymore,’ but this wasn’t a small thing. It was corrupt, and it was widespread.”
Wells Fargo’s illegal acts have not taken much of a toll on its profit. The fines, penalties and refunds it has paid out are a small fraction of the $11 billion it earned in the first half of this year.