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Wells Fargo’s Troubles Mount With Fine for Mishandling Soldiers’ Loans

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Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), reeling from weeks of pummeling over fraudulent customer accounts, is now facing a Justice Department sanction over improperly repossessing cars owned by members of the military, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.

Federal prosecutors and the bank’s regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, are planning to punish the San Francisco-based lender for alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, said the people, who asked not to be named because the investigation isn’t public. A penalty of as much as $20 million is expected from the OCC, one of the people said. That’s an unusually large fine for abuse of this law, which in most cases requires that firms obtain court orders before seizing vehicles from soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are delinquent on their loans.

These enforcement actions against the bank follow a $185 million settlement in which employees of the firm opened more than two million accounts that customers may not have been aware of with the aim of meeting internal sales targets. The matter has sparked weeks of sharp criticism, congressional hearings and the forfeit of tens of millions in bonuses for top executives.

Catherine Pulley, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, declined to comment on the auto lending settlement, as did spokesmen for the OCC and Justice Department.

Wells Fargo’s stock declined 1.54 percent to $44.38 after Bloomberg News reported on the car-seizure sanctions Thursday — at the same time that Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf answered questions in a House hearing on the accounts scandal.

Lawmakers’ Priority

Shielding soldiers from financial stress has been a priority for lawmakers, and the Justice Department has recently stepped up enforcement actions against banks for taking assets illegally. Banco Santander SA’s U.S. unit agreed to pay $9 million last year over allegations that it improperly confiscated more than 1,000 vehicles from military members, the largest settlement ever obtained in a case involving repossessions of automobiles with delinquent loans.

Wells Fargo — which was the world’s most valuable bank before the account scandal hurt its stock price — has branches on eight U.S. military bases, including Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Dix in New Jersey and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. On its website, the bank says it has “a history of making banking easier for our servicemen and servicewomen.”

Previous Accusations

The bank has previously been accused of not adhering to the military lending law, which Congress approved decades ago to protect soldiers from legal hassles while they’re on active duty. Wells Fargo agreed to compensate borrowers as one of five mortgage servicers sanctioned for improper home foreclosures, paying $28 million for so-called non-judicial foreclosures that didn’t pass through courts and $59 million for those handled in the judicial system, according to statements issued by the Justice Department last year. The bank didn’t admit or deny the allegations.

In the Santander case, the Justice Department was tipped off by the U.S. Army’s legal assistance program that vehicles might have been repossessed illegally. In one allegation, the bank was said to take a soldier’s car in the middle of the night after being told that he was at basic training. Santander didn’t admit or deny the department’s claims.

More recently, the Justice Department fined  HSBC Holdings Plc $434,500 last month in a small case involving the improper repossessions of 75 cars. And in 2012, Capital One Financial Corp. agreed to pay $12 million over a wider range of allegations that also included improper vehicle seizures. The bank acknowledged that it might not have been in compliance with the law.

A frequent problem in investigations involving asset repossessions is that lenders don’t understand servicepeople’s eligibility for protections. While the Department of Defense maintains a database accessible to banks, studies by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that loan servicers often didn’t check military status. Thousands of people haven’t received proper benefits under the law and oversight by regulators “has been limited,” the GAO has said.


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