USAA mishandled payday disputes, opened unauthorized accounts: CFPB

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USAA Federal Savings Bank will pay over $15 million in restitution and fines to settle claims by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that the bank neglected stop-payment requests and reopened deposit accounts without customers' consent.

The CFPB's consent order, announced Thursday, alleged the bank refused to investigate when customers asserted that funds had been debited in error. The agency specifically singled out USAA's process for responding to disputed payday loan transfers as a source of the bank's faulty practices.

The CFPB said USAA also engaged in unfair acts or practices from 2011 to 2016 by reopening closed consumer deposit accounts in certain circumstances without providing timely notice.

The order said that USAA reopened 16,980 closed accounts without obtaining consumers’ authorization, and that 5,118 customers incurred roughly $270,000 in fees. In July 2017, USAA reimbursed those customers' fees plus interest.

The $82.2 billion-asset San Antonio bank agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine and $12 million in restitution to 66,000 members for violations of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, Regulation E and the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, the CFPB said.

The 39-page consent order said USAA had refused to stop or correct payments payday loans after customers notified the bank about suspected errors on electronic fund transfers that they said were incorrect, unauthorized or exceeded the authorization granted by the consumer.

"Through May 2015, as a matter of policy USAA did not investigate reported errors unless the consumer asserting the error submitted a completed [written statement of unauthorized debit] within 10 days of USAA sending the consumer the form," the consent order said.

Regulation E requires that financial institutions investigate alleged errors promptly and report or mail the results of an investigation to the consumer within 10 business days.

A USAA spokesman said the bank has improved its procedures and began providing restitution to some customers last year.

“None of the issues reflect an intention to take advantage of our members,” the spokesman, Matt Hartwig, said in an emailed statement. “USAA has been proactively addressing these issues for more than a year and most are resolved. We take responsibility for this situation.”

The CFPB’s consent order said USAA's procedure for responding to suspected errors involving payday loans was separate from that for other types of payment disputes. If a customer had a complaint about a payday loan, USAA instructed customers to contact the payday lender — not the bank — to dispute the transaction.

“On numerous occasions, USAA representatives refused to investigate errors because they concerned payday loans,” the order said.

USAA representatives also warned consumers about the potential legal and financial consequences of asking for an error resolution investigation of a payday loan contract, going so far as to tell customers that their membership in USAA was “at risk” if they did so.

According to the CFPB consent order, "through at least April 2013, the procedure directed USAA representatives to say: 'If we determine that the ACH debit in question was authorized, you will be putting your USAA membership at risk. What this means to you is that you may become ineligible to purchase additional USAA products and that existing USAA accounts may be closed. Also, please understand that it is a federal crime to make a false statement to a bank and this is punishable by a fine of up to one million dollars or imprisonment for up to 30 years, or both.' "

As recently as March 2016, USAA required that consumers contesting a payday loan debit transaction submit a notarized written statement to the bank, the order said. USAA would not conduct an investigation without a notarized written statement.

USAA said that like most banks, it may temporarily reopen closed accounts to process certain transactions, such as debits or credits a customer previously authorized, or to resolve a disputed charge. The bank made a distinction between reopening deposit accounts and the Wells Fargo scandal that involved opening millions of unauthorized accounts. "The procedure is purely administrative and does not relate to sales goals, nor does the Bank offer any employee incentives tied to the practice," Hartwig said.

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Payday lending Enforcement actions Payments ACH Deposits UDAAP CFPB USAA