Bank of America withheld promised perks from some of its credit card customers, double-charged overdraft fees and secretly opened card accounts in customers’ names without their knowledge or consent, federal regulators said Tuesday.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which oversee the banking industry, levied $150 million in fines against the country’s second-largest bank over what they called “junk fees” that it was charging customers, as well as its mishandling of customer accounts. Some customers paid $35 in overdraft fees multiple times on a single transaction they requested from an account that had insufficient funds.
As part of the consumer bureau’s action, the bank will repay more than $80 million to customers who were improperly charged fees or denied sign-on bonuses, and will compensate customers who had cards opened in their names without their knowledge.
The practices came to light as part of an industry wide examination, ordered by President Biden in 2022, of the fees that companies were charging customers. Bank of America ended the practices described in Tuesday’s actions in 2021 and 2022, according to the regulators.
“These practices are illegal and undermine customer trust,” Rohit Chopra, the director of the consumer bureau, said in a statement. “The C.F.P.B. will be putting an end to these practices across the banking system.”
Regulators said Bank of America had imposed improper overdraft fees by double-charging customers over the same transaction. The first charge would be a $35 “insufficient funds” penalty levied against a customer who tried to pay for something by check or automated transaction without having the funds necessary to do so.
The transaction would be declined, but if the merchant trying to collect the money resubmitted a request for payment, the money would go through and another $35 charge would hit the customer’s account, this time as an overdraft fee, or it would be denied again, incurring a second “insufficient funds” fee.
A Bank of America spokesman said the bank had “voluntarily” reduced overdraft fees from $35 to $10 in early 2022 and had eliminated its $35 “insufficient funds” penalty. It has since seen a 90 percent drop in revenue from such fees, the spokesman said.
In addition to the action on overdraft fees taken together by the two regulators, the consumer bureau said it had discovered two other areas where the bank was mistreating customers. For some customers who were enticed into opening new credit card accounts, the bureau found that Bank of America had not provided the sign-up bonuses it had promised to customers who opened accounts on the phone or in person instead of online.
The bureau also said it had uncovered some instances of Bank of America employees opening new cards in customers’ names without their knowledge or consent in order to meet sales goals.
These fake accounts appeared to make up only “a small percentage” of Bank of America’s new accounts, according to the consumer bureau. By comparison, such practices were widespread at Wells Fargo, leading to years of investigations by federal and state authorities that resulted in billions of dollars in penalties.
The regulators’ actions represent a significant move against a single institution over “junk fees,” but not the largest. In December, the consumer bureau brought its largest-ever action against a bank with a $3.7 billion case against Wells Fargo over such fees. In September, the bureau ordered Regions Bank, a midsize lender, to pay $50 million into a victims’ relief fund and refund its customers $141 million in overdraft fees.
The banking industry has been trying recently to pre-empt regulatory crackdowns over customer fees. Several of the largest U.S. banks announced changes to their overdraft policies in late 2021 and early 2022. Trade groups later argued that the changes banks made on their own meant that no new laws or regulations governing overdraft fees were necessary.
“These reforms from the nation’s largest banks have occurred without regulatory or legislative intervention and collectively represent a transformational moment in time for the industry,” Lindsey Johnson, the president of the Consumer Bankers Association, a lobbying group, wrote in an opinion piece in September.
Emily Flitter is a reporter with The New York Times. Copyright 2023, The New York Times.