Justice fines Capital One for violating law protecting troops from creditors


FILE - In this April 25, 2008 file photo, New York buildings are reflected in the window of a Capital One bank office window. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
July 26, 2012

In its second settlement in eight days, McLean-based Capital One Bank will pay $12 million in restitution to troops who were unlawfully denied reprieve from high interest rates, foreclosure and car repossession while on active duty.

Justice Department officials estimate that at least 4,000 service members were affected by these practices, but the number is likely to grow as Capital One continues its investigation into the matter.

The fine is yet another black eye for the nation’s fifth-largest bank. Last week, on the same day it reported a 90 percent drop in profits in the second quarter, it agreed to pay $210 million to settle charges that it deceived millions of customers into buying unnecessary add-on services for their credit cards.

Investigators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found instances in which call-center agents hired by the bank enrolled people without consent or made false claims that the services were mandatory or free.

The CFPB also reported that there have been 393 credit card complaints against Capital One since June 1. That figure was more than any other bank’s and about 22 percent of the total for the entire industry.

Capital One — known for its “What’s in your wallet?” ad campaign — has blamed these problems on poor internal controls. As for its treatment of military personnel, the bank did not officially admit to wrongdoing but in a statement said it was sorry.

“We sincerely apologize and . . . will be providing lower rates and greater benefits than the law requires to all eligible service members,” said Capital One General Counsel John G. Finneran Jr.

The Justice Department on Thursday said Capital One employees violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a federal law that extends a host of legal and financial protections to military personnel. Bank staff denied benefit requests, provided insufficient protections or unlawfully initiated legal actions.

Aside from the payout to troops, Capital One will pay the Justice Department a $55,000 fine, the maximum under the SCRA statute.

Federal authorities began looking into violations after receiving a complaint from a Capital One customer in May 2010. The lion’s share of the cases it uncovered involved credit card accounts, whereby the bank neglected to reduce interest payments to 6 percent as prescribed by SCRA.

“Military personnel shouldn’t have to worry that his or her car will be repossessed while they’re on the front line overseas,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters in a call Thursday.

In the past three years, the Justice Department has hit nearly all of the nation’s big banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup, Ally Financial and JPMorgan Chase, with enforcement actions for wrongfully foreclosing on active-duty military.

“We’re happy to see the Justice Department actually following up to make sure lenders comply with SCRA,” said retired Air Force Col. Steven P. Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. “We’ve always had some protections, but there was little enforcement.”

Justice officials have asked Capital One to pay $7 million in damages to military personnel — including $125,000 for foreclosure, $10,000 for repossession, $500 for failed interest rate reduction and a refund of all the interest charged above 6 percent.

The bank will provide another $5 million to service members who did not receive the full benefits allotted under the act. The settlement also requires Capital One to repair the credit of those affected by its actions, which occurred from July 2006 to November 2011.

“Good credit is about keeping your job in the context of a service member,” said Perez, referring to the fact that credit problems can affect security clearance.

Regulators are also requiring Capital One to improve procedures for processing SCRA requests and training employees.

Capital One must submit to independent audits that include accounts at the recently acquired ING Direct and HSBC, whose credit card portfolio the bank purchased last year. If violations occurred at these other banks, Capital One will compensate those victims as well.

The bank said it initiated a review of its entire portfolio of loans once it was alerted to problems late last year.

Starting next month, Capital One will lower the interest rate for all SCRA-eligible accounts from 6 percent to 4 percent. That new rate will be extended for one year beyond the end of active duty across all lending products.

Consumer advocacy groups have called into question many of Capital One’s actions. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, for instance, accused the bank of steering low- to moderate-income borrowers into subprime credit cards. The group led the charge last year to oppose Capital One’s $9 billion purchase of ING Direct.

The Federal Reserve approved the ING deal with conditions that Capital One enhance its risk management and compliance controls. Specifically, regulators ordered the bank to fix internal controls for debt collection and lending in response to consumer complaints.

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