For the second time this month, Wells Fargo has reached a settlement with the U.S. government, agreeing to pay a $37.3 million fine for overcharging customers of its foreign exchange service.
According to the Department of Justice, Wells Fargo sales specialists systematically charged forex customers higher markups on transactions than they represented the bank would charge, pocketing tens of millions of dollars in ill-gotten revenue between 2010 and 2017.
As a result of improper incentives and lack of oversight, the DOJ said in a civil complaint, “a culture developed at Wells Fargo in which Wells Fargo FX sales specialists “openly discussed and even celebrated [fraudulent] transactions,” using expressions such as “when in doubt, spread them out” to jokingly describe how they were profiting at the expense of customers.
The settlement comes less than three weeks after Wells Fargo agreed to pay a $250 million fine for failing to establish an effective home lending loss mitigation program. The bank has previously paid about $35.3 million in restitution to the 771 forex customers it defrauded.
“For the better part of a decade, Wells Fargo abused this trust, using tricks, false information, and other deceptive practices to fraudulently overcharge customers who used the bank’s foreign exchange service,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a news release.
The government said Wells Fargo’s customer management reporting database showed that “while customers thought they would receive and/or were receiving the rate that the bank represented to customers, the bank in fact was surreptitiously charging the customers higher spreads.”
In one case, Wells Fargo allegedly agreed to charge a customer a spread of 25 “pips” on certain trades when it would actually charge a spread of 30-35 pips “if possible.”
The bank, the DOJ noted, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to sales specialists based on forex revenue, with some of them receiving bonus compensation exceeding $1 million in a single year.
“By financially incentivizing its FX sales specialists to overcharge FX customers while failing to take steps to ensure that FX sales specialists honored pricing representations, Wells Fargo created an atmosphere in which employees openly joked about and celebrated taking advantage of the bank’s customers,” the complaint said.