Samir Hanef exited his Durham, N.C., home late last year to find his 2010 Honda Civic missing. The police told the clinical social worker that the car was not stolen, as he thought, but repossessed.
Hanef is one of about 20,000 Wells Fargo customers whose cars were allegedly seized in recent years after the bank improperly charged them for auto insurance they did not need, driving some into delinquency.
The San Francisco megabank has apologized and promised to refund him and other customers $80 million. But that is not enough for Hanef. After paying hundreds of dollars to get his car back, he discovered that the incident had lowered his credit score by 100 points, crippling his chance at economic opportunities.
“I am more concerned about that” than the money, Hanef said. “Your credit dictates how you can live your life.”
Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the country, has been rocked by scandal since last year after it acknowledged that it had opened millions of bank and credit card accounts its customers did not need or want, some of which ended up in default. It has already replaced its chief executive and dismissed other leaders, and it was assessed a fine of $100 million. But the scope of the problems continues to expand. The bank acknowledged this month that there may be “significantly” more than the 2 million unauthorized accounts it initially estimated. And last month, it reported that 570,000 auto loan customers had been charged for insurance they did not need, sometimes leading to their cars being repossessed.
The bank’s efforts to move beyond the tumult are being hamstrung by the collateral damage from its mistakes — the affected credit scores of potentially millions of customers.
The potential damage varies, but Goldman Sachs estimated last year that the more than 500,000 Wells Fargo customers for whom the bank opened unauthorized credit cards may have ended up paying an extra $50 million to borrow money because of their damaged credit. Industry experts say the affect on customers whose cars were repossessed is likely to be more catastrophic — similar to losing your home in a foreclosure or declaring bankruptcy — and could last for years.
A low credit score can make it more difficult to get a loan, a mortgage or a job. “Employers use it. Home insurers use it. Even if you are trying to rent an apartment, the landlord may check your credit,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center with a focus on credit reporting and scoring. “That kind of collateral damage could be significant.”
Wells Fargo acknowledges the problem and lists the solution as a “work in progress” on its website. The bank is researching how its activities affected customers’ credit scores, Wells Fargo chief executive Tim Sloan said in a March speech. “We want to make sure we make that right for our customers if they had been affected.”
Part of the problem is that fixing the issue requires the cooperation of the notoriously opaque credit rating bureaus — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.
“The whole thing is a black box,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, whose members include lawyers, law professors and law students. “How do you compensate someone for the time and effort to correct those reports?”
Hoping to resolve the matter, Wells Fargo has reached a $142 million preliminary settlement to compensate the possibly millions of customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their name.
The settlement, which still needs final approval by a judge, includes a complicated formula for addressing the effect the sham accounts had on customers’ credit scores. The amount of the payment will depend on how much a customer’s credit score declined as well as other factors, according to court documents.
“It took a lot of thought and careful work with experts so that we could make sure we were untangling the impact of the credit impact of fake accounts,” said Derek Loeser, a partner at the law firm Keller Rohrback and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. “To our knowledge, the effort to unwind credit damage on this vast a basis is unprecedented. As far as we know, nobody has a better way for doing it and nobody has done it before. It’s just another indication of the absurdity of Wells Fargo’s conduct and what it really takes to ‘make things right.’ ”
But attorneys representing other Wells Fargo customers have objected to the proposed settlement, arguing it does not go far enough in addressing the damage to customers’ credit scores. The settlement agreement, for example, says that someone who borrowed $18,000 for an auto loan and paid a higher interest rate because of a 12-point credit-score drop due to an unauthorized Wells Fargo account would receive about $130. That’s not enough, some attorneys argue.
“Everything they purchased has a higher cost to it because their credit has been damaged by the fraudulent accounts,” said Steven Christensen, who has filed suit in Utah against the bank and represents other Wells Fargo customers. “They need to look specifically at everyone's circumstances.”
Aaron Brodie, who works for the police department in Fort Worth, said he opened a Wells Fargo checking account in 2012 and was sent a credit card he didn’t want. Brodie said he was told by the bank he could ignore the card but learned a year later it had accumulated nearly $1,000 in various late and maintenance fees. He closed the checking account and refused to pay what he considered the bogus credit card bill. “They told me they couldn’t help me,” he said.
When he tried to buy a home several years later, Brodie said, he learned the incident had lowered his credit score by 125 points, making it nearly impossible for him to qualify for a loan.
“I didn’t know anything about credit at the time,” he said. “I was 22. I trusted them. They were Wells Fargo.”
A Wells Fargo spokesman said that while the bank took action to deal with the unauthorized credit card, “we would like to talk to Mr. Brodie to address any other concerns.”
Wells Fargo is facing similar questions about how it will deal with the fallout from the problems in its auto loan division. Its auto loan customers are required to maintain insurance and allow the bank to buy it for them if they don’t have a policy.
After receiving some complaints from customers, the bank launched a review of the program in 2016 as it was dealing with the repercussions from the sham-accounts scandal. The review found that between 2012 and 2017, many customers were being charged for insurance premiums even though they already had their own policy. In some cases, the bank said, the unpaid extra premiums led customers to lose their cars.
Wells Fargo, which has discontinued the program, said the problem was caused by a third-party vendor but has agreed to refund about $80 million in premiums and other costs. That will include compensating customers who faced repossessions. The bank says it will also work with the credit bureaus to rehabilitate customers’ credit scores.
“We are deeply sorry for any harm we caused our customers, who expect and deserve better from us,” Sloan, the company’s CEO, said in a message to employees shortly after news of the problem became public. “We will acknowledge mistakes and take responsibility for our actions.”
That is not good enough for Hanef, the Durham social worker. He didn’t learn that Wells Fargo had begun charging him for auto insurance until after his car was repossessed. “My policy had not lapsed, so I told them it was a mistake and thought, ‘Okay, it is going to get fixed now,’ ” he said.
But Wells Fargo said it was up to him to detect the problem, Hanef said. “They blamed me for not paying attention to my statements, but that doesn’t change the fact that they did something that they shouldn’t have,” he said.
With his car scheduled to be sold at auction in less than two weeks, Hanef said he felt pressured to pay the $350 repossession fee and other costs to get his car returned.
“Hanef is part of the remediation and we are very sorry for his experience,” Wells Fargo said in a statement.
Even if Wells Fargo refunds those costs, Hanef said he will still need help repairing his credit reports.
For now, his plans to refinance his home so that he can pay off student loans have been shelved because of his low credit score, he said.
“All of those years of working to establish my credit is down the drain just like that,” he said. “It will take years to build it up again.”