Big banks snub customers, mounting lawsuits show

Los Angeles TimesDecember 29, 2013 

Earns Wells Fargo

A Wells Fargo bank branch in Los Angeles Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

REED SAXON — AP

Wells Fargo branch manager Rita Murillo came to dread the phone calls.

Regional bosses required hourly conferences on her Florida branch's progress toward daily quotas for opening accounts and selling customers extras such as overdraft protection. Employees who lagged behind had to stay late and work weekends to meet goals, Murillo said.

Then came the threats: Anyone falling short after two months would be fired.

"We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald's," said Murillo, who later resigned. "If we did not make the sales quotas ... we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays."

Wells Fargo & Co. is the nation's leader in selling add-on services to its customers. The giant San Francisco bank brags in earnings reports of its prowess in "cross-selling" financial products such as checking and savings accounts, credit cards, mortgages and wealth management. In addition to generating fees and profits, those services keep customers tied to the bank and less likely to jump to competitors.

But that success has come at a cost. The relentless pressure to sell has battered employee morale and led to ethical breaches, customer complaints and labor lawsuits, a Times investigation has found.

To meet quotas, employees have opened unneeded accounts for customers, ordered credit cards without customers' permission and forged client signatures on paperwork. Some employees begged family members to open ghost accounts.

These conclusions emerge from a review of internal bank documents and court records, and from interviews with 28 former and seven current Wells Fargo employees who worked at bank branches in nine states, including California.

Erick Estrada, a former Wells Fargo personal banker and business specialist at a Canoga Park branch, said managers there coached workers on how to inflate sales numbers.

Employees opened duplicate accounts, sometimes without customers' knowledge, he said. Workers also used a bank database to identify customers who had been pre-approved for credit cards -- then ordered the plastic without asking them, Estrada said.

"They'd just tell the customers: 'You're getting a credit card,'" Estrada said. He admitted to opening unneeded accounts, though never without a customer's knowledge, he said.

When customers complained about the unwanted credit cards, the branch manager would blame a computer glitch or say the card had been requested by someone with a similar name, Estrada said.

One former branch manager who worked in the Pacific Northwest described her dismay at discovering that employees had talked a homeless woman into opening six checking and savings accounts with fees totaling $39 a month.

"It's all manipulation. We are taught exactly how to sell multiple accounts," the former manager said. "It sounds good, but in reality it doesn't benefit most customers."

Like many other workers interviewed by The Times, she requested anonymity, citing a fear of retribution from Wells Fargo or difficulty finding employment at other financial institutions.

The former manager said she helped the homeless woman close all but one account, which was needed for direct deposit of her Social Security disability benefits. She said she reported the situation to her boss, but never heard of any action taken by the bank.

Wells Fargo officials said they make ethical conduct a priority and punish or fire employees who don't serve customers properly. They acknowledged the bank's strong focus on selling, but said it is intended to benefit customers by identifying their needs.

"I'm not aware of any overbearing sales culture," Chief Financial Officer Timothy Sloan said in an interview.

The company recently fired about 30 Southern California workers, including Estrada -- employees the bank said cheated to hit their sales goals. Employees said other workers in the region were put on administrative leave or let go; the company declined to comment on any additional actions.

Wells Fargo spokesman Oscar Suris said the bank has security procedures to root out employees who violate laws or bank ethics policy.

"This is something we take very seriously," Suris said. "When we find lapses, we do something about it, including firing people."

The bank said this month that it is creating an Ethics Program Office to review standards for employees and handling of conflicts of interest. Spokeswoman Mary Eshet said Wells Fargo's 2008 takeover of Wachovia Bank created a giant with more than 80 lines of business, and Wells wants to ensure that its ethics policies are consistent.

Branch employees receive ethics training and are compensated mainly in salary, not bonuses, Suris said. Tellers earn about 3 percent in incentive pay linked to sales and customer service, he said, while personal bankers typically derive about 15-20 percent of total earnings from these payments.

The pressure to meet goals starts with supervisors, Wells Fargo staffers said. Branch managers in California have filed five related lawsuits alleging that the bank failed to pay them overtime. The extra hours were spent laboring to meet sales targets, said plaintiffs' attorney John J. Glugoski of San Francisco.

"Wells Fargo sets the goals so high for the sale of products -- new accounts, loans, credit cards -- that the managers don't have enough staff," he said.

So they regularly stayed late to finish their employees' work, Glugoski said. State law allows some supervisors to be paid fixed salaries, but only if they spend more than half their time managing. The suits are pending in Sacramento County Superior Court. They seek class-action status to represent all California branch managers as far back as 2007.

Wells Fargo has denied the allegations in court filings but declined to comment further.

Two other recent California lawsuits, filed separately by a Wells employee and a customer, allege that Wells Fargo employees opened accounts or credit lines for customers without their authorization. Other lawsuits alleged the bank forced employees to work unpaid overtime, in some cases to meet sales targets. In answers to the complaints the bank has denied wrongdoing.

By some measures, Wells Fargo is the nation's biggest retail bank, with more than 6,300 offices and a market valuation of $237 billion.

In reporting a record $5.6-billion quarterly profit in October, Wells Fargo said it averages 6.15 financial products per household -- nearly four times the industry average.

Wells Fargo "is the master at this," said Michael Moebs, an independent bank consultant in Lake Bluff, Ill. "No other bank can touch them."

Meeting those account quotas falls mainly to branch employees.

Bank manager Murillo, 41, now employed by another bank, said she resigned from her Wells Fargo branch in the Fort Myers, Fla., area in 2010, even though she had no other job lined up and her husband wasn't working full time. The couple ended up losing their home.

"It all seemed worth the chance and the risk, rather than to deal with the mental abuse," Murillo said. "Just thinking about it gives me palpitations and a stomachache."

In February, Becky Grimes, 57, quit Wells Fargo after 14 years as a branch manager in Victoria, Texas. She said she retired early because employees were expected to force "unneeded and unwanted" products on customers to satisfy sales targets.

"I could no longer do these unethical practices nor coach my team to do them either," Grimes said.

The bank expects staffers to sell at least four financial products to 80 percent of their customers, employees said. But top Wells Fargo executives exhort employees to shoot for the "Great 8" -- an average of eight financial products per household.

The tracking starts each morning. Managers are asked not only to meet but to exceed daily quotas passed down by regional bosses. Branch managers are expected to commit to 120 percent of the daily quotas, according to the former Pacific Northwest branch manager, who said results were reviewed at day's end on a conference call with managers from across the region.

"If you do not make your goal, you are severely chastised and embarrassed in front of 60-plus managers in your area by the community banking president," the former branch manager said.

Longer-term quotas included a requirement that tellers generate at least 100 sales of financial services per quarter, either directly or by referring customers to personal bankers, the former manager said.

Internal documents obtained by The Times show how carefully Wells Fargo tracks account openings and lucrative add-ons.

The documents, dated from 2011 through October, include a 10-page report tracking sales of overdraft protection at more than 300 Southland branches from Ventura to Victorville; a spreadsheet of daily performance by personal bankers in 21 sales categories; and widely distributed emails urging laggard branches to boost sales and require employees to stay after hours for telemarketing sessions.

An email from a Southern California district manager in 2011 criticized a dozen branches for signing up only 5 to 38 percent of new checking accounts for overdraft protection -- an opt-in service that charges customers $35 for each overdraft the bank covers.

"This has to come up dramatically," the email said. "We need to make a move toward 80 percent."

A report this spring from a district in the Southwest provided a count of direct-deposit accounts opened by each of 11 branches during a 15-day period, also with the percentage of customers who signed up for overdraft protection.

Tarzana retiree Bette Hirsh Levy closed her Wells Fargo checking account last year after discovering that a branch employee had approved her for an $8,200 line of credit without her permission.

"I have had a six-figure line of credit with Wells for several years," Levy said. "There was no reason for me to open another."

David Douglas made similar accusations against Wells Fargo in a lawsuit filed Sept. 11 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He alleges that three Wells Fargo employees in Century City and Beverly Hills used his birth date and Social Security number to open accounts in his name and those of fictitious businesses. At least one employee forged his signature several times, said Douglas' lawyer, Michael P. Kade of Los Angeles.

"They put their own addresses on the accounts so he wouldn't know about it," Kade said. "It showed up on his credit report -- that's how he found out."

Suris, the Wells Fargo spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Court filings show that Wells Fargo asked for the dispute to be decided in private arbitration.

A lawsuit filed Oct. 3 by former bank employee Jahedeh Zarandian in San Mateo County Superior Court alleges that she was wrongfully fired after following her manager's directions to open accounts in the names of family members. Zarandian's lawyer, N. William Metke of San Francisco, declined to make his client available for comment. Wells Fargo filed a written response in court denying Zarandian's claims.

A Nevada lawsuit filed in 2009 by Amber Salazar, on behalf of Wells Fargo business bankers in the state, won certification as a class action. The lawsuit claimed that Wells misclassified the bankers as managers, failed to pay overtime and required them to work unpaid "call nights" to solicit business.

Wells Fargo settled the case for $100,000 and did not admit wrongdoing.

Prior to his October firing, Wells Fargo business specialist Estrada worked at the Canoga Park branch at Roscoe and Topanga Canyon boulevards. He said the manager would greet the staff each morning with a daily quota for products such as credit cards or direct-deposit accounts. To fail meant staying after hours, begging friends and family to sign up for services, Estrada said.

"He would say: 'I don't care how you do it -- but do it, or else you're not going home,'" Estrada recalled.

He said branch and district managers told him to falsify the phone numbers of angry customers so they couldn't be reached for the bank's satisfaction surveys.

Estrada said employees would open premium checking accounts for Latino immigrants, enabling them to send money across the border at no charge. Those accounts could be opened with just $50, but customers were supposed to have at least $25,000 on deposit at Wells Fargo within three months or pay a $30 monthly charge.

To get around those requirements -- and keep earning credit toward their quotas -- Estrada said employees would downgrade the original accounts and open new premium ones for the customers before the fees kicked in.

Levy, the customer surprised by the unrequested credit line, said she went to complain at the Tarzana branch, where the account was opened without her knowledge. Levy said a manager told her the person responsible was one of the branch's "best employees."

The bank closed the credit line but never gave Levy the apology she requested.

"I said: 'If that's one of your best employees, Wells Fargo is in trouble.'"

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