Fifth Third Bank accused of opening fake accounts
Last week, Fifth Third Bank revealed that it was facing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau enforcement action over “alleged unauthorized account openings.”
And Monday, the other shoe dropped when the CFPB said it is suing Cincinnati-based Fifth Third alleging the bank’s employees opening accounts in customers’ names without their consent in order to meet sales goals and earn incentives.
According to the CFPB, “for several years Fifth Third, without consumers’ knowledge or consent: opened deposit and credit-card accounts in consumers’ names; transferred funds from consumers’ existing accounts to new, improperly opened accounts; enrolled consumers in unauthorized online-banking services; and activated unauthorized lines of credit on consumers’ accounts.”
The bureau claims that, much like Wells Fargo, Fifth Third engaged in a “cross-sell” strategy, where the bank’s employees were encouraged and incentivized to get customers to open additional accounts.
The CFPB claims that from 2008 through at least 2016, that system led to Fifth Third employees opening fake accounts in customers’ names in order to meet those goals.
The bank, on the other hand, claims that the CFPB’s allegations are without merit and its lawsuit is uncalled-for. Put simply, the bank said that it “rejects” the bureau’s allegations.
“Fifth Third Bank respects and values the important role that the CFPB plays in protecting consumers but believes that the civil suit filed today is unnecessary and unwarranted,” said Susan Zaunbrecher, chief legal officer of Fifth Third Bank. “The Bank will defend itself vigorously and is confident in the outcome.”
According to Zaunbrecher, the bank’s compensation and incentive structure “does not reward retail employees for opening unauthorized accounts, nor does it give them sales quotas or product-specific targets.”
Zaunbrecher said that the bank’s controls are “designed to prevent and detect unauthorized account openings.” Zaunbrecher added the bank “claws back” compensation from employees for accounts that are unused or closed shortly after they were opened.
In defending itself against the CFPB’s claims, Fifth Third admits that some of its former employees did open unauthorized accounts in customers’ names between 2010 and 2016.
According to Fifth Third, less than 100 employees opened approximately 1,100 unauthorized accounts over that six-year period.
“After an investigation spanning more than three years and involving nearly half a billion pieces of data produced by the bank, the CFPB has not informed us of any unauthorized accounts beyond the fewer than 1,100 accounts that the bank itself identified out of 10 million – or approximately 0.01% of accounts opened between 2010 and 2016,” Zaunbrecher said.
“These accounts involved less than $30,000 in improper customer charges that were ultimately waived or reimbursed to customers years ago,” Zaunbrecher added. “While even a single unauthorized account is one too many, we took appropriate and decisive action to address each situation.”
According to the bank, between 2010 and 2016, 96 employees were terminated or resigned for opening accounts that the bank deemed suspicious or didn’t meet the bank’s standards for quality and customer usage.
During that time, the bank had more than 27,000 employees serving in customer-facing roles.
Additionally, the bank claims it received just 424 complaints regarding unauthorized accounts from more than 10 million customer accounts over that six-year period.
The bank claims that this indicates that “misconduct was the exception, not the expectation.”
The CFPB claims that Fifth Third’s remediation efforts for the affected customers were insufficient, a claim the bank also disputes.
It should also be noted that the scope of the Fifth Third fake account problem appears to be much smaller than the one that has plagued Wells Fargo for the last several years. In its lawsuit, the CFPB does not indicate the size or scope of the problem at Fifth Third.
Wells Fargo’s fake account scandal stemmed from 5,000 Wells Fargo employees opening two million fake accounts in order to receive sales bonuses. Fifth Third is also smaller than Wells Fargo.
Fifth Third has branches in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina, whereas Wells Fargo is nationwide.
The CFPB seeks an injunction to “stop Fifth Third’s unlawful conduct, redress for affected consumers, and the imposition of a civil money penalty.” The bureau also wants to see the bank ordered to “correct harmful consumer-reporting-agency information, including but not limited to correction of any harmful trade lines on consumer-credit reports resulting from unauthorized consumer-financial accounts and services.”
Fifth Third, meanwhile, said it will move for a quick trial.
“The bank is confident that it has treated its customers fairly,” Zaunbrecher said. “When a federal court examines the evidence, we believe it will agree with Fifth Third that this is a limited and historical event. The bank will press for an early trial.”
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