What Wells Fargo’s $185 Million Settlement May Mean for You

An explanation from financial experts who know.

NerdWallet is an A Plus content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage about personal finance from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of A Plus. 

Who would expect a bank, rather than some shadowy hacker, to misuse your personal information?

Wells Fargo reached a $185 million settlement Thursday for what federal officials called a widespread illegal practice among employees of creating fake customer accounts, PIN numbers and emails in order to meet sales targets and earn bonuses.

What Wells Fargo did

Wells Fargo employees opened roughly 1.5 million bank accounts and about 565,000 credit card accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which cited figures from the bank's own investigation that reviewed accounts from 2011 to 2015.

Employees issued debit cards with fake PINs and used phony email addresses to secretly sign up customers for online banking. They temporarily transferred customers' money to the bogus bank accounts, at times leaving a low balance and triggering overdraft or other charges, according to the CFPB. Many customers also were charged annual fees and interest on the credit cards.

The settlement

Wells Fargo, one of the nation's largest banks, did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. However, the bank must refund all customers' wrongly charged fees and pay penalties totaling $185 million to the CFPB, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and to Los Angeles city and county officials. The CFPB will receive $100 million, which is the largest fine imposed by the agency in its five-year history.

Wells Fargo said customers already have received a total of $2.6 million in refunds, with the average payment being $25.

The bank said it has fired about 5,300 employees and taken other disciplinary actions. It also has added ethical sales training and monitoring to prevent improper sales practices.

How it might affect you

Consumers don't need to do anything to get back refunds because it's up to Wells Fargo to return any money owed, according to the CFPB.

"Even prior to the announced settlements, we initiated an extensive review by a third-party consulting firm going back into 2011. … We have completed this review and refunded any fees associated with products customers may not have requested," said Richele J. Messick, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo. "If we learn of any additional customers that require refunds, we will make those refunds promptly."

Refunds aside, if you are a current or former Wells Fargo customer, you might be worried about any unauthorized accounts opened in your name. Just as in the case of hackers possibly stealing your data, your best defense is vigilance.

"Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information — such as your name, Social Security number and date of birth — typically to hijack your credit and use it to open up new credit accounts, take out loans in your name, or access your bank or retirement accounts," says Nancy Bistritz, the director of public relations and communications for Equifax. To protect yourself, she says it's important to check your credit report regularly for any red flags.

Checking your credit report

You can get a free copy every year from each of the three national credit-reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — at annualcreditreport.com. Bistritz recommends checking for unfamiliar accounts, especially any that are delinquent or in collections.

If you discover anything suspicious, act immediately. You can contact your local law enforcement agency, visit ftc.gov and report the information to the three credit-reporting companies. As a victim of identity theft, you have certain rights and protections. You can learn about them at the Federal Trade Commission's Know Your Rights page at https://www.identitytheft.gov/Know-Your-Rights.

Jeanne Lee is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: jlee@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @jlee_jeanne. Claire Tsosie and Ellen Cannon contributed to this article.