Wells Fargo tried to address the issue by creating a filter intended to identify prime customers. But according to Justice, brokers easily bypassed the process by encouraging borrowers to skip the down payment or withhold certain documents — steps disqualifying them for a prime loan. Often borrowers were not told that they were eligible for a better interest rate.
Federal investigators said senior Wells Fargo officials knew about those practices but did little to stop them.
In addition, even when black and Hispanic customers got prime loans, they paid higher fees than white borrowers, Justice alleged. The average African American taking out a $300,000 prime loan was charged $2,064 more in broker fees than a similarly qualified white customer. Latino borrowers paid an average of $1,251 more.
“The department’s action makes clear that we will hold financial institutions accountable, including some of the nation’s largest, for lending discrimination,” Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said.
Wells Fargo said Thursday that it will no longer work with independent mortgage brokers, which originate about 5 percent of its loan volume.
As part of the settlement, it is also reviewing subprime mortgages made by in-house loan officers to determine whether any black or Latino borrowers may have qualified for prime mortgages instead. The compensation for those customers would be added to the $175 million settlement.
Justice estimated that identifying and distributing the payments to consumers would take about a year. But it also acknowledged that the long-term consequences to minority communities could take far longer to repair.
The Washington Post reported this week that a growing chorus of consumer advocates, economists and civil rights leaders are raising concerns that the fallout from the boom in subprime lending has endangered the financial futures of black Americans by lowering their credit scores.
“The impacts of lending discrimination and the harm to a person’s credit can be far reaching — inhibiting a range of opportunities that affect a person’s ability to find housing, good employment or access higher education,” said Perez, the assistant attorney general.
The Wells Fargo agreement comes less than two months after Justice negotiated a $21 million settlement with SunTrust Mortgage over similar allegations. Last year, it reached a $335 million agreement with Countrywide Financial, now owned by Bank of America, in what is the largest fair-lending settlement in the department’s history.