It is going on five years since the financial crash and three years since President Obama signed the meager Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and the big banks are still scamming and conning and ripping off their customers. What a huge surprise.
After the financial crash, we heard about a laundry list of abuses and frauds that ranged from small things, like hidden fees, to pushing minorities into subprime loans and then switching them into more expensive mortgages at signing time, to huge things like selling trillions of dollars in complicated CDO schemes and making bets on derivatives of derivatives without having the reserves to pay off what they owed when the bets went bad.
Of course, no one at the top was prosecuted and the banks were allowed to settle a host of charges (which meant that their shareholders, not the executives who made the decisions, paid the fines). The bad behavior gave these giants a competitive advantage, driving out what good companies there were. So the costly and destructive bad behavior, schemes, cons and scams continue.
1. Falsifying Paperwork, Blitzing, Lying About Payments to Force Homeowners Into Foreclosure
This week, ProPublica released a report detailing the shocking ways that Bank of America has been pushing homeowners into foreclosure. Employees lied about documentation and falsified paperwork to force families out of their homes when these customers thought they were getting a loan modification under the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). To make matters worse, the bank gave bonuses to employees who were able to reach monthly quotas of people they forced into foreclosure.
According to a lawsuit against Bank of America, the bank used “blitzing” twice a month to deny HAMP applications even when the homeowner had fully complied with the program’s requirements; it gave employees $500 bonuses each month they forced 10 or more homeowners into foreclosure; it intentionally ignored applications for 30 days, then declared them late and forced homeowners to reapply; it closed applications even when they knew the homeowner had met all criteria; and it canceled loan modifications because of “late payments” when the bank’s records shows that payments had been made on time.
Of course, as long as the government refuses to prosecute banks and bankers for violating laws, and instead negotiating “settlements” that require bank shareholders to pay fines, bankers will see no reason to stop this kind of activity.
2. Bank Protection “Service” Puts Consumers at “Greater Risk Of Harm”
Last week a report from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that the big banks are still scamming their customers with ridiculous fees that are hugely profitable for the big banks.
Three years ago the government required banks to ask their customers if it is okay (this is called “opt-in”) before they charge them for “overdraft protection” service. CFRB has been studying how this is working out, and its report shows that customers who do not opt-in to this heavily marketed “protection” service pay much, much less in fees than those who do. In other words, agreeing to use the “protection” actually puts you at a much greater risk of incurring expenses than those who are not “protected.”
According to a McClatchy News report on a call with CFPB director Richard Cordray to discuss the report, Cordray said, "What is marketed as overdraft protection can, in some instances, put consumers at greater risk of harm.”
How much risk? People who are “heavy overdrafters” but still opt out of this service save on average more than $900 a year. But it isn’t just heavy overdrafters who are saving. According to the CFPB report “… the reduction in fees for those who did not opt in was $347 greater, on average, than for those who did opt in.” People who opt in are also more likely to lose their bank accounts, with the bank “involuntarily” closing it.
Banks have made $32 billion from these fees. So maybe this isn’t about providing a “protection” to consumers at all. As NPR puts it, "Overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees accounted for 61 percent of total consumer deposit account service charges in 2011 among the banks in the CFPB report."
3. Transaction Ordering
Not only do customers who opt-in pay more for this “protection service,” but the banks are still scamming them by causing the overdrafts that generate these fees. The CFPB report says that some banks still use “transaction ordering” to cheat customers out of additional fees. These banks post checks or debit transactions from large to small to trigger these fees. In other words if you write several small checks (or make debit card transactions) and then a big one that overdraws your account, they credit the large one first so each of the smaller transactions causes its own fee to be charged, even though those transactions occurred before the account ran out of money.
From the report, “The earlier in a sequence that an account becomes negative, the more overdraft or NSF transactions may occur.”
4. Forced Arbitration
Another big-bank scam on consumers is “forced arbitration” clauses in bank account, credit card, mortgage and other financial-service agreements. Forced arbitration clauses – also called mandatory arbitration or binding arbitration – require you to give up your legal right to take a big bank to court if it cheats or harms you. And if you don’t agree (which requires reading the entire agreement) you can’t get the account.
They way this works is that instead of being able to pursue your legal rights, you have to take your complaint to an arbitrator, and then must accept the arbitrator’s decision. The catch is that the bank gets to pick the arbitrator, and the arbitrators naturally know they’ll never work in this town again if they ever rule against the banks. So there is an inherent conflict of interest working in favor of these companies.
How is that conflict of interest working out for us? A 2007 Public Citizen report revealed that arbitrators working for the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) had ruled against consumers 94 percent of the time.
In another blow to the big banks, the CFPB is beginning to take steps to reign in forced arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts.
The five-year-old Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act authorizes the CFPB and the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate mandatory arbitration. The SEC is resisting implementing their part of this law, but the CFPB is conducting a survey to determine consumer awareness of forced arbitration clauses in credit card agreements. On its blog, the CFPB said the study will “explore consumer awareness of dispute resolution terms in credit card agreements. The survey will gather information about consumers’ perceptions, preferences, and assumptions related to arbitration proceedings.”
5. Marketing Refinancing That Costs People
Thom Hartmann has exposed yet another banker scheme. This time banks are marketing a mortgage refinancing that promises annual savings of more than $4,000. But the scheme really just adds more than $37,000 to the cost of a loan.
Basically, the mailer focuses on lowering monthly mortgage payments, while neglecting to mention that the borrower would end up paying a higher overall interest rate, and would be adding 10 more years to the overall length of their loan. Hartmann writes,
Back in November of 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent warning letters to around a dozen of America’s largest mortgage lenders and brokers, advising them to “clean up” potentially misleading advertisements, especially those targeting veterans and older Americans.
At the time of the CFPB’s announcement, CFPB director Richard Cordray said that, “Misrepresentations in mortgage products can deprive consumers of important information while making one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.”
And, as we also know, deceptive mortgage advertisements like this can cause consumers to bite off more than they can chew, ultimately leading to a nationwide financial meltdown.
6. Banks Trying To Kill the CFPB
Over the years, scam after scam is exposed, and nothing has been done about it. But there is a new cop on the beat, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB’s job is to police the big banks, and protect financial consumers. Of course the big banks are trying to head this agency off at the pass.
The Republican Party and its conservative infrastructure have basically been contracted by Wall Street’s big banks to obstruct and even kill this agency. Senate Republicans have been blocking the confirmation and are still trying to obstruct the nominee to head up the agency. Republicans have been filibustering the nomination of Richard Cordray to be its director and even vowing to filibuster to keep any nominee from being confirmed to head the agency. President Obama finally made a recess appointment of Cordray in January 2012. But this recess appointment runs out at the end of the year with no end to Republican obstruction in sight.
Republicans are also trying to defund the agency. Republicans and the (billionaire, Wall Street, oil and tobacco-financed) conservative movement have also launched a propaganda campaign against the agency. Recently, at the Senate Republican Policy Committee website, "CFPB: Unaccountable and Unrestrained," claims, “A recent action by the CFPB to monitor consumer credit cards and the spending habits of millions of Americans is raising new concerns in a government suffering from a trust deficit.” In an example of how the right’s echo machine works, the Heritage Foundation echoes this attack, alleging that CFPB gathering data for reports like this one is an example of government “surveillance” on consumers, “amassing an Orwell-worthy database on all manner of spending, including … overdrafts …”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren – the person most credited with the creation of the CFPB – spoke at a Senate hearing on the CFPB last March on the role of the CFPB and Republican obstruction of the agency:
"I see nothing here but a filibuster threat against Director Cordray as an attempt to weaken the consumer agency," Warren said. "I think the delay in getting him confirmed is bad for consumers, it's bad for small banks, bad for credit unions, for anyone trying to offer an honest product in an honest market."
"The American people deserve a Congress that worries less about helping big banks," she added, "and more about helping regular people who have been cheated on mortgages, on credit cards, on student loans and on credit reports."
Don’t expect much to change until we have a government that is willing to take on these financial giants. As long as we keep seeing “settlements” with these giants instead of prosecutions, and as long as we allow big money to buy influence over our government, nothing will change.