PROTECTING CONSUMERS FROM WALL STREET

The collapse of the financial corporations in 2008 was due in large part to their predatory and illegal practices in pushing unaffordable home mortgages onto gullible home buyers. Congress and President Obama enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (known as Dodd-Frank) to help protect consumers from such abusive behavior.

Dodd-Frank’s most notable consumer protection provision was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB’s role is to protect consumers from illegal and predatory practices, as well as discrimination, by financial corporations and to work to ensure that consumers receive the information necessary to make good financial decisions and to avoid “unsafe” financial products and services.

Since its creation, the CFPB has been hard at work punishing financial corporations that violate the law, returning almost $12 billion to over 29 million victimized consumers. In less than 8 years, it has helped consumers by responding to over 1.2 million complaints and issuing, for example, new standards for home mortgage documents that are clearer and easier to understand. At CFPB’s website you can find information on understanding your credit score and to help you make a good decision about a car or student loan.

Given that financial products and services (such as bank accounts, credit cards, and car and student loans) are essential for individuals, families, and our economy, appropriate regulation of them is necessary. Before the creation of the CFPB, financial services regulation was spread among 6 federal agencies and state regulators. None of them had consumer protection as its sole or primary role nor had the power to establish a single set of regulations for the whole financial industry. The CFPB has this power and a sole focus on consumer protection, much as the Consumer Product Safety Commission does for non-financial products. [1]

In July, the CFPB finalized a rule prohibiting financial corporations from putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their customer contracts. These clauses, which are in most agreements consumers sign when they open a bank account or get a loan or credit card, prohibit customers from suing the financial corporation in court. (They are also in many contracts or agreements for other consumers products and services, such as cell phones and cable TV, Internet, and phone services.) They require the customer to submit any complaint, even one due to illegal activity, to an arbitrator, who is usually selected by the financial corporation. They eliminate the ability of customers to band together in a class action lawsuit, and require them to pursue any grievances only through individual arbitration cases.

In addition to preventing class action lawsuits, the mandatory arbitration clauses often prohibit customers from sharing their experiences with regulatory or law enforcement agencies and the media. Corporations know that consumers will rarely spend the time and money (the typical cost to file an arbitration claim is $161) to pursue arbitration, given that the amount of money at stake is usually small. The result is that corporations evade accountability and can hide illegal or unethical behavior. [2]

The CFPB rule banning mandatory arbitration clauses was put in place after 5 years of study and development pursuant to a Congressional directive to study mandatory arbitration clauses and restrict or ban them if they harm consumers. The CFPB study found that customers win only 1 out of 11 arbitration cases and when they win they receive an average of $5,389. However, when a financial corporation makes a claim or counterclaim against a customer, it wins 93% of the time and the customer is ordered to pay, on average, $7,725 to the financial corporation! [3]

The CFPB study also found that in an average year 6,800,000 consumers get cash awards due to class action lawsuits while only 16 do so in arbitration cases. Consumers in these lawsuits receive a total of $440,000,000 (after deducting lawyers’ and courts’ fees), while consumers across all arbitration cases receive a total of $86,216.

Three recent examples of practices by Wells Fargo & Company make clear the significance and importance of banning mandatory arbitration clauses and allowing class action lawsuits by customers. (By the way, Wells Fargo is the third largest US bank and a multi-national financial corporation headquartered in San Francisco with $22 billion in annual profits.) It recently paid $185 million to settle with the CFPB and other regulators for having illegally opened and charged customers for over 2 million unauthorized checking and credit card accounts. When customers tried to sue Wells Fargo for this starting back in 2013, it forced them to make their claims in individual arbitration cases. This allowed Wells Fargo to continue its illegal behavior and theft from customers for 3 more years (5 years in total) before its behavior came to the attention of regulators.

In July, another class action lawsuit was filed against Wells Fargo based on illegal behavior on car loans. Apparently, Wells Fargo was requiring customers with car loans to buy car insurance they didn’t need (it was typically redundant with insurance they already had). And Wells Fargo was getting kickbacks from the company selling the insurance. The extra cost of the unneeded insurance pushed 250,000 car loan customers into default on their loan payments and resulted in 25,000 cars being repossessed. If these customers are forced into arbitration and are unable to participate in a class action lawsuit, it’s likely that most of them will not receive any compensation from Wells Fargo for its illegal and harmful behavior.

Finally, Wells Fargo is the defendant in an on-going, 8-year-old case over overdraft fees and practices. It is arguing in court that these customers’ claims must be handled in individual arbitration cases rather than a class action lawsuit, despite complaints from customers in 49 states. [4]

Despite these examples, and the fact that Congress has banned mandatory arbitration in home mortgage agreements, members of Congress have quickly introduced legislation to repeal the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new rule banning mandatory arbitration clauses in financial product and service agreements. [5] Weakening or eliminating the CFPB in general, not just its ban on mandatory arbitration, has been a goal of Wall St. corporations and their friends in Congress ever since its creation by the Dodd-Frank law.

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators and ask them to support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its ban on mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer product and service agreements.

[1]      Servon, L.J., 7/17/17, “Will Trump kill the CFPB?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/will-trump-kill-cfpb)

[2]      Germanos, A., 7/12/17, “Serving Wall Street predators, GOP launches swift attack on new rule protecting consumers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/12/serving-wall-street-predators-gop-launches-swift-attack-new-rule-protecting)

[3]      Shierholz, H., 8/1/17, “Correcting the record: Consumers fare better under class actions than arbitration,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/correcting-the-record-consumers-fare-better-under-class-actions-than-arbitration/)

[4]      Brumback, K., 8/25/17, “Wells Fargo wants customer suits tossed,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[5]      Germanos, A., 7/12/17, “Serving Wall Street predators, GOP launches swift attack on new rule protecting consumers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/12/serving-wall-street-predators-gop-launches-swift-attack-new-rule-protecting)

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