ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — The Navajo Nation on Tuesday made Wells Fargo Bank’s disastrous legal year a little bit worse, filing a 17-count federal lawsuit accusing the nation’s third-largest bank of targeting Navajos, especially minors, the elderly, and those who spoke limited English, with high-pressure tactics to open unnecessary accounts.
Wells Fargo has been rocked by scandal since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced in September 2016 that the bank for years had been creating fake accounts and signing customers up for online banking services, without their knowledge or consent.
The CFPB and dozens of whistleblowers attributed the tactics to relentless pressure from overhead to increase the number of accounts.
The Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has a population of roughly 340,000. It’s the largest tribe in the United States, by area and population and more than any other has preserved its language. The Navajo, or Diné, even have words for computer program and catalytic converter. Its governmental capital is in Window Rock, Arizona, and is recognized by the United States as a domestic dependent nation with tribal sovereignty.
According to 55-page complaint from Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel B. Branch, Wells Fargo claimed that it had not engaged in these widely reported, illegal banking practices in the Navajo Nation.
In January this year, “Wells Fargo falsely claimed that ‘there has been no impact from Wells Fargo’s improper sales practices, as outlined by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, to the Navajo Nation community. No Tribal community members in Arizona or New Mexico were harmed, and no Wells Fargo team members who worked at bank branches located on Navajo Nation lands were terminated,’” the complaint states.
The 2½ page letter of Jan. 3, on Wells Fargo letterhead, from the bank’s vice president for the Arizona region, Aaron Lemke, is attached to the complaint as an exhibit.
But when the Navajo investigated, they found that the five Wells Fargo branches on tribal lands: in Kayenta, Tuba City, Chinle and Window Rock, Arizona, and Shiprock, New Mexico had not only engaged in illegal banking practices, but had deliberately targeted the nation’s most vulnerable members.
The allegations are summed up in a rather relentless paragraph, No. 2 of 199: “Under intense pressure from superiors to grow sales figures. Wells Fargo employees lied to Navajo consumers, telling elderly Navajo citizens who did not speak English that in order to have their checks cashed, they needed to sign up for savings accounts they neither needed nor understood. Wells Fargo representatives stalked local events like basketball games and flea markets to sign up consumers for unnecessary accounts en masse, especially targeting Navajo women who sold native crafts and products. They opened accounts for underage Navajo citizens, going so far as to falsify birthdates to avoid obtaining necessary parental consent. And Wells Fargo employees even strong-armed Navajo family members into signing up for Wells Fargo products they did not need—all in an effort to satiate Wells Fargo’s desire for ever-increasing account figures and profits.”
Because the Navajo Nation operates largely as a cash-carrying society, the complaint states, Wells Fargo took particular advantage of elderly residents. “Seizing on Navajo elders’ relative lack of financial sophistication, Wells Fargo sales employees often insisted that elders open different savings accounts for car payments, utility payments, food, and other routine expenses.”
For example, the complaint states, “sales personnel would refuse to release elders’ money to them unless the elders signed up for additional accounts. Many elders were unable to sign their names in English, so Wells Fargo sales personnel would have the elders apply a thumbprint — with the teller acting as a witness to open new accounts. Elders were commonly asked to sign documents they did not understand to open accounts they did not need.”
The fraud was brazen, the complaint adds: “Sales personnel would frequently wait until after customers had left the store to open new accounts for them, and would then do so in the customers’ absence.”
The bank targeted young people and small business owners, according to the complaint: “Appallingly, Wells Fargo internal records show that sales personnel at branches on or near the Navajo Nation opened unauthorized accounts for minors without consent in order to make sales quotas. On information and belief, sales personnel went to such extremes as to falsify a minor’s dates of birth in order to open an account without requisite parental consent.”
A Wells Fargo spokesman declined to comment, citing pending litigation, but said the bank has “taken significant steps to make things right for our customers, including members of the Navajo Nation, who may have been affected by unacceptable retail sales practices.”
The Navajo seek disgorgement of unjust profits, restitution and damages for fraud, consumer law violations, unjust enrichment, conversion, unfair and deceptive trade, violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Truth in Lending Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and other charges.
Attorney General Branch said in a statement: “Wells Fargo must be held accountable for its unfair and unlawful practices directed toward the Navajo people. Among their other despicable acts, the bank specifically targeted our most vulnerable population – our elders.”