Top-three U.S. automotive lender Wells Fargo has been discovered to have charged hundreds of thousands of customers for duplicate car insurance they neither needed nor wanted, and in some cases people lost their vehicles because of the excess cost. The financial-services company has responded by saying it will refund about $80 million to those affected. It nevertheless faces legal fallout. And this week, the New York Timesreported the bank is separately under investigation by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco over borrowers not being refunded for “gap insurance.”
Wells Fargo’s improper insurance billing comes to light as the lending giant continues to dig itself out from a scandal in which it created as much as 2.1 million unauthorized customer accounts to hit sales targets. That resulted in $185 million in fines.
Gap—”guaranteed asset protection”—insurance is meant to cover the depreciation of a vehicle. It is not required, though the Times noted that sometimes car dealers will push it on buyers, and it’s supposed to give lenders peace of mind. But it typically only works in consumers’ favor if a new car is totaled shortly after it’s financed and little money had been put down toward the loan. That’s because new-vehicle values depreciate heavily just after purchase. So an insurance company may value the totaled car at less than what the consumer still owes. Gap insurance then covers the difference.
Borrowers who pay off a car note early are due a prorated refund on the gap-insurance premiums they have already paid. Nine states require lenders to ensure such a refund takes place: Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina. Wells Fargo told Car and Driver that during an internal review it found oversight issues related to gap insurance, which is typically handled on the dealer end of the financing process. “Our review found that internal controls to confirm the refund were not adequate,” company spokeswoman Natalie Brown said in an email. “We are evaluating that now, and if customers did not receive a refund, we will make it right.” Brown said the bank will also now provide direct refunds for unused gap insurance to customers in the aforementioned states and will expand the practice nationwide over time. It is not yet clear how many borrowers are affected.
Meanwhile, in the coverage flap over unnecessary collision insurance, an internal company report found that when consumers financed a vehicle through Wells Fargo, the bank passed along their information to insurance underwriter National General, which was supposed to verify whether the borrower had insurance. If not, coverage was automatically added to the total owed on the loan alongside the vehicle payments and interest. But apparently coverage was added even when the buyer already had insurance; by Wells Fargo’s estimates, some 570,000 customers may have been needlessly insured, and of those, about 20,000 may have lost their vehicles because they were unable to afford the unexpectedly higher charges and defaulted on their loans. The report reviewed policies sold to Wells Fargo customers from January 2012 through July 2016.
The New York Times was first with the story on the unnecessary auto insurance, after obtaining an internal report by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. The report revealed that National General was getting commissions on the insurance it sold to Wells Fargo’s borrowers. The bank shared in those commissions but stopped that practice after February 2013. Wells Fargo said it discontinued the program last September.
Wells Fargo issued a statement at the end of July outlining its customer compensation plan and saying letters and some refund checks are already in the mail. “We take full responsibility for our failure to appropriately manage the program and are extremely sorry for any harm this caused our customers, who expect and deserve better from us,” Franklin Codel, head of Wells Fargo Consumer Lending, said in the statement. “Upon our discovery, we acted swiftly to discontinue the program and immediately develop a plan to make impacted customers whole.”
According to the bank, about 490,000 customers who had their own coverage were needlessly given additional insurance with their loans. Wells Fargo said it refunded the premium and interest for the duplicate coverage when customers flagged the bank on it. These customers will now get some additional money for “certain fees and some additional interest.” The total refund will be about $25 million.
Borrowers in Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington State, by laws of those five states, are supposed to receive notice of added insurance policies, but about 60,000 customers in those states “did not receive complete disclosures from our vendor,” the bank said. For affected borrowers in those states, Wells Fargo will pay about $39 million to refund premiums, fees, and interest.
For some 20,000 people who had their cars and trucks repossessed, Wells Fargo will pay out about $16 million in refunds. The payment will depend on each customer’s situation, the company said, and it “will include payment above and beyond the actual financial harm as an expression of our regret for the situation.”
The bank also said it will work with credit bureaus to repair any damage to affected customers’ credit scores. It plans to complete the reimbursement process by the end of the year.