Eleven senators have called for Wells Fargo Bank to step up its efforts to follow the law in the wake of the most recent alleged violations of troops' and families' consumer rights.
The senators have also asked the bank to justify why it should continue to be allowed to operate on some military bases, given the alleged violations. Wells Fargo is among a number of banks that have agreements with specific military installations to be the exclusive bank operating on that base.
Wells Fargo was ordered to pay $24 million in restitution and fines as a result of alleged violations of three separate provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, according to announcements from the Justice Department and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
"We are extremely disappointed to learn of the SCRA announcement. Combined, these abuses indicate that Wells Fargo has actually made it more difficult and stressful for our service members and their families by violating the very rights they have fought and continue to fight so hard to secure," wrote the senators in an Oct. 6 letter to bank officials.
The group of senators is led by Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Armed Services Committee; Richard Bluementhal, D-Conn., ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking member of the Banking Committee.
The Justice Department ordered the bank to pay more than $4.1 million to resolve allegations that it violated the rights of service members by repossessing 413 cars owned by protected military members without first obtaining a court order, officials announced Sept. 29. The repossessions happened between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 1, 2015.
Also on Sept. 29, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced it had ordered the bank to pay a $20 million civil penalty and ordered the bank to make restitution to the service members.
The allegations also involved repossessions of service members' vehicles, as well as failing to provide the 6-percent interest rate limit to service members' debts that they incurred before entering military service; and failing to disclose service members' active-duty status to the court through affidavits before evicting service members from their homes. The violations occurred between 2006 and 2016.
Under the OCC order, service members eligible for restitution include those who were financially harmed because of the violations. The bank must also take corrective action to establish a compliance program to detect and prevent future SCRA violations.
Under the Justice Department settlement, Wells Fargo will pay $10,000 to each of the affected service members, plus any lost equity in the vehicle, with interest. The bank must also repair the credit of all affected service members.
"In those instances where some service members did not receive the appropriate benefits and protections, we did not live up to our commitment and we apologize," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Catherine B. Pulley. "We have been notifying and fully compensating customers and will complete this work in 60 days.
"We self-identified many of the problems over the past year, and we have strengthened our processes to deliver SCRA benefits and protections more proactively and consistently, enhanced our efforts to identify eligible service members and improved our oversight."
According to both the Justice Department and OCC consent order, the bank neither admitted nor denied the allegations.
The senators noted that this is not the first allegation against Wells Fargo regarding an SCRA violation. The bank was one of five banks that settled with the Justice Department and states' attorneys general for foreclosure violations, including SCRA violations, in 2012. Wells Fargo at that time agreed to pay $87.7 million to 720 service members.
In addition, the senators have asked whether any of the Wells Fargo branches located on some military bases were part of a recent separate action announced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB fined the bank $100 million, and the OCC fined the bank $35 million, because of allegations that bank employees secretly opened unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts, spurred by sales targets and compensation incentives.
The senators want to know if any service members were affected by these problems.
Justice officials began their investigation into Wells Fargo in 2015 after a National Guard attorney notified them about a Guard member in Hendersonville, North Carolina, whose car was repossessed and sold at public auction in October, 2013, while he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Then Wells Fargo also pursued the Guardsman for the deficiency balance of more than $10,000. Under the SCRA, the bank must get a court order before repossessing a vehicle owned by a service member, if that service member took out the loan before entering military service.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.