Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
Wells Fargo, the largest mortgage lender in the country, portrays itself as a stalwart bank that puts customers first. That reputation shattered in September, when it was fined $185 million for illegally opening as many as 2 million deposit and credit-card accounts without customers’ knowledge.
Now four former Wells Fargo employees in the Los Angeles region say the bank had another way of chiseling clients: Improperly charging them to extend their promised interest rate when their mortgage paperwork was delayed. The employees say the delays were usually the bank’s fault but that management forced them to blame the customers.
The new allegations could exacerbate the lingering damage to the bank’s reputation from the fictitious accounts scandal. Last week, Wells Fargo reported declining earnings. In the fourth quarter, new credit card applications tumbled 43 percent from a year earlier, while new checking accounts fell 40 percent.
“I believe the damage done to Wells Fargo mortgage customers in this case is much, much more egregious,” than from the sham accounts, a former Wells Fargo loan officer named Frank Chavez wrote in a November letter to Congress that has not previously been made public. “We are talking about millions of dollars, in just the Los Angeles area alone, which were wrongly paid by borrowers/customers instead of Wells Fargo.” Chavez, a 10-year Wells Fargo veteran, resigned from his job in the Beverly Hills private mortgage group last April. Chavez sent his letter to the Senate banking committee and the House financial services committee in November. He never got a reply.
Three other former employees of Wells Fargo’s residential mortgage business in the Los Angeles area confirmed Chavez’s account. Tom Swanson, the Wells Fargo executive in charge of the region, directed the policy, they say.
In response to ProPublica’s questions, Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda wrote in an email, “We are reviewing these questions about the implementation of our mortgage rate-lock extension fee policies. Our goal is always to work efficiently, correctly and in the best interests of our customers and we will do a thorough evaluation to ensure that’s consistently true of the way we manage our rate-lock extensions.” Through the spokesman, Swanson declined a request for an interview.
Wells Fargo’s practice of shunting interest rate extension fees for which it was at fault onto the customer appears to have been limited to the Los Angeles region. Two of the former employees say other Wells Fargo employees from different regions told them the bank did not charge the extension fees to customers as a matter of routine.
Three of the former employees, who now work for other banks, say their new employers do not engage in such practices.
Here’s how the process works: A loan officer starts a loan application for a client. That entails gathering documents, such as tax returns and bank statements from the customer, as well as getting the title to the property. The loan officer then prepares a credit memo to submit the entire file to the processing department and underwriting department for review. The process should not take more than 60 or 90 days, depending on what kind of loan the customer sought. During this period, the bank allows customers to “lock in” the quoted interest rate on the mortgage, protecting them from rising rates. If the deadline is missed, and rates have gone up, the borrower can extend the initial low rate for a fee, typically about $1,000 to $1,500, depending on the size of the loan.
Wells Fargo’s policy is to pay extension fees when it’s at fault for delays, according to Goyda. Yet in the Los Angeles region, the former employees say, Wells Fargo made customers pay for its failures to meet deadlines. The former employees attributed the delays to the inexperience and low pay of the processing and underwriting staff. In addition, to keep costs down, the bank understaffed the offices, they say.
“The reason we were not closing on time was predominantly lender related,” said a former Wells Fargo employee. When a loan officer asked the bank to pick up the extension fee, “it didn’t make a difference if” the written request “was a one-liner or the next War and Peace,” said the former employee. “The answer was always the same: No. Declined. ‘Borrower paid,’ never ‘Lender paid.’”
Anticipating that it couldn’t close on time, the bank adopted a variety of strategies to shift responsibility to customers. The “most blatant methods of attempting to transfer blame onto customers for past and expected future delays,” Chavez wrote, included having loan processors flag “the file for ‘missing’ customer documentation or information that had already been provided by the borrower.” The customers would have to refile, blowing the deadline.
Sometimes loan officers would ask customers to submit extra documents that Wells Fargo did not need for its initial assessments, burdening them with paperwork to ensure they wouldn’t meet the deadline. On occasion, employees built in a cushion, quoting a higher fee at the beginning. That way, they didn’t have to go back to tell the customer about the extra fee at the end.
One employee says he complained to Swanson’s boss about the situation but upper management referred the problem back to Swanson. The employee’s immediate manager then scolded him.
Swanson told co-workers that he personally took a hit if the bank paid out too many extension fees, two of the former employees recall. “Swanson would be very upfront that his bonus is tied to extension fees,” says one. The other former loan officer says, “During meetings, the branch was told extensions were costing the branch money.”
Swanson, an 18 year veteran of the bank, has faced criticism before that he sought profits at the expense of customers. In 2005, customers in Los Angeles sued Wells Fargo for racial discrimination. They contended that Swanson prohibited loan officers in minority neighborhoods from using a software program that gave them the ability to offer borrowers discounted fees. He allowed loan officers to use the same program in white neighborhoods, where residents paid lower fees as a result. Believing that minority borrowers did not shop around for mortgages, Swanson contended Wells Fargo did not need to offer the discounts in their neighborhoods since the bank faced less competition, according to witness testimony at trial.
In 2011, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found that Wells Fargo intentionally discriminated on a portion of the loans in question and awarded plaintiffs $3.5 million, a decision that was upheld on appeal. With interest, the payout rose to just under $6 million. “The verdict in the case was not in line with the law and the facts, and there was no evidence that class members paid a higher price than other similarly situated borrowers,” Goyda said. Nevertheless, he added, the bank decided to pay the judgment rather than pursue additional appeals.
“Swanson runs that place,” said Barry Cappello, who co-tried the case against Wells Fargo with his partner Leila Noël. “He is the man. They do what he wants done. Despite the lawsuit and the millions they paid out, the guy is still there.”
Shifting extension fees onto borrowers may amount to just poor customer service, rather than a regulatory violation. Still, if it is widespread and systematic, the bank could be running afoul of banking laws that ban unfair or deceptive practices, regulators say.
For a couple of years around 2011, when Wells Fargo was originating a heavy volume of mortgages, the bank made a decision to pay all the extension fees, spokesman Goyda said. But, around 2014, it reverted back to its traditional policy of paying fees only when it’s at fault.
Chavez says that the problems began in earnest that year and persisted as of the time he left last April. The precise value of the improperly assigned extension fees in the Los Angeles region is unclear. Chavez and another employee estimate they ran into the millions. One of the former employees estimates a quarter of the mortgages at his branch had to be extended. By that measure, if a loan officer did $100 million in loans in a year, those mortgages would rack up about $62,000 in extension fees. The Beverly Hills office alone did around $800 million to $1 billion in underlying mortgages, generating at least half a million dollars in extension fees, the employee estimates. Swanson’s region has 19 branches.
Some customers resented having to pay the extension fees, and took their business elsewhere. After one mortgage application faced a delay, a Wells Fargo assistant vice president in Brentwood named Joshua Oleesky called to tell the customer that he had to pay an interest rate lock extension fee. The customer balked, blaming the bank for missing the deadline. Oleesky “started interrogating me on why Wells Fargo was responsible for the delay,” the customer wrote in a June 29, 2015, letter of complaint to Michael Heid, then president of Wells Fargo Home Lending. (He cc’d John Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s former CEO, who was ousted after the fictitious accounts scandal.) The customer went with another bank for the mortgage. Through the Wells Fargo spokesman, Oleesky declined comment.
According to the customer, Heid didn’t answer the letter.
IMAGE: A Wells Fargo branch is seen in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, February 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young