Tom Hamburger, “BANKING Bank of America is accused of exploiting Latino immigrant customers,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2009.
http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-bofa30-2009jun30,0,6339542.story
Ex-employees, backed by SEIU, say working-class and immigrant clients are urged to sign up for multiple services that carry high interest rates and fees. BofA denies any wrongdoing.
Reporting from Washington — Gabby Ornelas, a former teller at the giant Bank of America Corp., remembers the training sessions. And she remembers her marching orders: "Sell, sell, sell."

Ornelas was instructed to use her Spanish language skills and Latina heritage to sign up customers for as many kinds of banking services as possible, she said -- services that led to lucrative fees for the bank and financial entanglement for many customers.

"We were coached every day to push multiple checking accounts, credit cards and debit cards even when the customer didn't understand how to use them," said Ornelas, who lives in Landover Hills, Md., a town with a large immigrant population and a per-capita income of less than $19,000.

In one case, she described a Central American mother of three who came back to see her at the bank, distressed about $300 in overdraft fees incurred after Ornelas persuaded the woman to open a second checking account.

Ornelas and eight of her colleagues leveled the accusations in recent interviews. They are being backed in their whistle-blowing by the Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize BofA, the nation's largest bank.

Bank of America officials flatly rejected the allegations, saying their policies are legal, adhere to industry standards and are helpful to customers, including immigrants seeking a toehold in the United States.

"Bank of America believes the SEIU's claims misrepresent the bank's relationship with its customers and its associates," said Anne Pace, a bank spokeswoman.

The former workers said they were going public to lay out what they saw as a little-known side of BofA's business model: encouraging working-class customers to sign up for high-interest-rate credit and cash advance services and structuring an array of check and debit card services to maximize overdraft fees and other charges.

The campaign will be launched publicly this week, with workers scheduled to tell their stories in news conference calls and meetings with members of Congress. The union is seeking to pressure the bank and to build support for legislation now stalled in the Senate that would make it easier for union members to organize.

Bank of America said that the former employees are a disgruntled minority and that internal surveys show that most employees of the company are overwhelmingly satisfied.

Other critics of SEIU said the union might have a conflict of interest because it has outstanding loans with the bank.

Many of the workers speaking out were fired from the bank, most before they took their complaints public. One worker has said her firing was related to her interest in the union. One worker is still employed at BofA.

BofA's Pace said that all of the bank's activities are not only legal but also useful to consumers, particularly those who have recently arrived in the U.S.

"We believe a checking account is the cornerstone to establishing financial security in this country," Pace said in an e-mail. "We offer innovative financial services to meet the needs of all of our customers, including Hispanic customers."

Pace also said the bank had taken steps to help customers facing "financial challenges." For example, she said, the bank waives certain monthly fees for customers who have lost their jobs and has reduced penalty fees for customers who overdraw their accounts by less than $5.

Although BofA denies wrongdoing, it recently paid $35 million to settle a class-action suit in California that alleged it deliberately ranked customer debits by order of size rather than by the time of day they occurred in order to maximize overdraft charges.

Pace said that the settlement does not include any acknowledgment of wrongdoing or even of the practices alleged in the suit, and that the bank paid the $35 million to avoid excessive legal bills.

Consumer advocates see it differently.

"Bank of America has moved to the top of the charts for fees being charged to consumers by big banks," said Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America.

Ornelas and three other former BofA tellers, all Latina women, said they and their co-workers were repeatedly instructed to seek potential new Spanish-speaking customers outside the bank. Some were instructed to go to embassies where recent emigres often wait in queue for visa and passport services.

Other tellers were asked to go to neighborhood stores, clinics and child welfare centers, and several were asked to recruit customers at a religiously oriented Mother's Day celebration, they said.

"We were told to push them to sign up for multiple checking accounts, which they didn't need," said Ambar Sandoval, a former teller at a BofA branch in Central Los Angeles who said she repeatedly resisted efforts to go recruit customers at a center for single mothers in Los Angeles.

The ex-employees provided some documentation for their claims, including internal bank memos showing a schedule of opportunities to solicit accounts among the crowds at Central American embassies and Latino community events. The documents also showed details of the sales goals pressed on branch employees.

Consumer advocate Fox was particularly critical of banks' practice of recording debits by order of magnitude, which half the country's leading banks do. Fox said the practice makes it more likely that even careful consumers will overdraw their account.

BofA defends the practice, saying it assures customers that their largest, most important payments have priority.

Fox said it's a tactic banks use to make sure their fee revenues remain high. She said consumers unwittingly and unfairly incur overdraft fees when using a debit card.

"People think that if they use their debit card, they will only spend money that they have in their accounts. But Bank of America and other big banks have found ways to turn your debit card into a credit instrument with which you can rack up extreme debt," she said.

For example, BofA permits a customer using a debit card to spend, say, $20 at a grocery store even if the bank account is depleted. Without informing the customer, the bank automatically imposes an overdraft fee of $35. An additional $35 fee is imposed less than a week later if the account is still out of balance.

These rates mean that consumers are in effect paying $70 for a $20 extension of credit at the grocery store, Fox said.

Pace said BofA offers overdraft protection and other services to "give our customers more control and flexibility to effectively manage their accounts and prevent fees."

tom.hamburger@latimes.com