GE Capital Retail Bank, a division of General Electric, excluded tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking credit card customers from a debt-reduction program it ran for two years, a pattern of discrimination that will cost the bank $169 million in fines, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The bank ran two programs from 2009 to 2012 that helped cardholders with low credit scores and high balances catch up on their payments. During that time, prosecutors say, the bank sent out offers to 400,000 people but did not inform 108,000 cardholders with mailing addresses in Puerto Rico or whose accounts indicated a preference for communications in Spanish.
“The scope of the potential harm, as well as the blatant nature of the discrimination, is particularly troublesome,” Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said during a conference call with reporters.
Prosecutors worked with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on what is the federal government’s largest credit-card-discrimination settlement in history.
The agreement, subject to court approval, calls for GE Capital to provide $169 million in compensation to 108,000 Hispanic cardholders in the form of cash or reductions of their credit card balances.
One of the GE Capital programs gave customers who owed more than $200 and were four or more payments behind the chance to settle their debts if they paid 25 percent to 55 percent of their account balances. The other program gave borrowers as much as $100 toward reducing their balances.
“These consumers never knew they were missing out on anything and, thus, had no way of recognizing that they were even being discriminated against — which is often the challenge in confronting discrimination,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said during the call with reporters.
Justice said GE Capital Retail Bank, which changed its name to Synchrony Bank this month, identified and reported the discrimination to bureau examiners. Prosecutors commended the bank for being proactive about compensating borrowers, 84,000 of whom have already received $131.8 million in relief. The remaining consumers will be contacted by the bank.
The bank has also agreed to contact the credit bureaus to eliminate negative marks on the reports of affected borrowers. The company neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
“Our compliance programs are strong, which is how we self-
identified the issue,” said Dori Abel, a spokeswoman for GE Capital Retail Finance. “We are committed to treating consumers fairly, so when issues are identified, we are committed to making it right.”
In a separate but related agreement, the CFPB penalized GE Capital Bank for using deceptive marketing practices to promote credit card debt-cancellation services.
The bank will have to reimburse $56 million to 638,000 customers who were duped into signing up for costly and unneeded services. It will also have to pay $3.5 million in fines to the bureau.
In an aggressive push to sell credit card add-ons, telemarketers working for GE Capital glossed over the terms or enrolled unwitting customers, CFPB officials said. In some cases, telemarketers misled cardholders into believing that they were receiving a benefit free of charge as long as they paid off the balance on their billing statements.