Wells Fargo Warned Workers Against Sham Accounts, but ‘They Needed a Paycheck’

“I was always getting written up for failing to bump my solutions numbers up,” he said.

Some of his co-workers, facing the same pressure, bent the rules, said Mr. Kellogg, who was making $11.75 an hour when he left the bank in 2012. They would ask local business owners whom they knew well to open additional accounts as favors, saying they could close them later.

“It seems as though you’d have to be willfully ignorant to believe that these goals are achievable through any other means,” Mr. Kellogg said.

“During our training we go through SO much training about ethics and how you CANNOT do that,” another former Wells teller wrote in the Reddit forum. “I got threatened to be fired as a teller with them because I wasn’t meeting my numbers. I told them I didn’t believe in trying to convince someone to spend money they don’t have, get what they don’t need.”

Other former Wells employees have vented their frustrations in a series of cartoon videos on YouTube that spoof on the bank’s hard-driving culture — and the fact that they were hardly getting rich from hitting their bosses’ targets. In one video, a cartoon banker drones on: “If tellers and bankers make those sales numbers each day, at the end of the month everybody in the branch will get a $5 gift card to McDonald’s. The district manager will get a $10,000 cash bonus.”

After the practice of creating phony accounts was first reported in The Los Angeles Times in late 2013, the bank stepped up its monitoring and ethics training, former employees said. For its part, the bank said it had caught the behavior and started firing workers before the article appeared.

In San Diego, Mr. Taha said he attended two days of ethics training where employees were shown the difference between valid and improper accounts.

But the problems persisted. Mr. Taha, 28, said he fielded complaints from customers about questionable accounts until shortly before he left the bank this summer. He said bank managers had grown weary of writing up reports on potentially improper sales.

“It was like jaywalking,” Mr. Taha said of the practice of creating fraudulent accounts. “It was hard to police.”

Mr. Taha now belongs to the Committee for Better Banks, an advocacy group that has been petitioning banks like Wells to improve working conditions for lower-level employees.

Customers all over the country have experienced the effects of the questionable sales. Early last year, Walter Mankowski, a 52-year-old computer science researcher who lives in Bryn Mawr, Pa., received a Wells Fargo credit card in the mail that he had not applied for. He essentially forgot about the card until months later, when a $45 annual fee for it turned up on one of his account statements.

“It took talking to three different people at Wells Fargo to cancel it,” Mr. Mankowski said. “I probably spent half an hour on the phone trying to cancel this card I didn’t know about and didn’t want.”

He is not alone. When the Los Angeles city attorney, Mike Feuer, sued the bank in May of last year over the phony accounts, his office received hundreds of calls from Wells customers and employees.

Some of those complaints regarded questionable accounts created only months before the lawsuit was filed.

“Clearly the necessity to fire 5,300 employees shows that there is something that needs to change with Wells internal oversight and with its practices generally,” Mr. Feuer said in an interview.

Some customers — even those who were not victims — agree and are voting with their feet. Darin Grantham, 43, a management consultant who lives in Phoenix, said he planned to close his checking, savings and credit card accounts with Wells Fargo this week — not because he had a bad experience, but because “I lost trust in them” because of the scandal.

Mr. Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s chief executive, has been called to testify at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Tuesday, and federal prosecutors are considering bringing charges. He has publicly said he feels accountable for what has happened, but he blamed workers for “misinterpreting” sales goals.

Customers like Mr. Grantham aren’t buying it. “They deny it because they don’t want to affect their million-dollar bonuses and jobs, but at some level they had to have an idea,” he said of Wells’s senior management. “When 5,300-plus employees lose their jobs, it’s not just them — they’re the scapegoats.”

In its settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators, announced last Thursday, Wells agreed to develop a broad “oversight program” of its sales practices, among other measures.

But it was not until four days later that the bank announced that it would halt the sales goals altogether — starting Jan. 1.

Ms. Eshet said the bank had considered this step for quite some time before finally deciding to eliminate the goals.

“We don’t want there to be any doubt on the part of our customers that our team members have their best interest at heart,” she said.

Still, the bank decided to wait a few months to implement the change because it needed enough “lead time” to roll out the change correctly, she explained.

“It was really important when we are making changes in compensation structure for team members that we get it right,” Ms. Eshet said.

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