Consumers were charged nearly $50 million in illegal overdraft fees by Alabama-based Regions bank, federal regulators said Tuesday. The bank, which operates in 16 states, failed to get consumers to opt-in to overdraft coverage, failed to stop charging illegal fees for nearly a year after it discovered the activity and also charged illegal fees in connection with its payday-loan-like “deposit advance” product, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Regions Bank operates approximately 1,700 retail branches and 2,000 ATMs, with a footprint that spans across the South and Midwest, from Florida to Texas to Illinois. It is one of the country’s biggest banks with more than $119 billion in assets.
“We take the issue of overdraft fees very seriously and will be vigilant about making sure that consumers receive the protections they deserve,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.
The CFPB on Tuesday ordered Regions to refund consumers and pay a $7.5 million fine, the first such fine levied under new overdraft rules set for banks in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
“After discovering that a small subset of customers had been charged fees in error, we reported it to the CFPB and began refunding the fees. We believe the vast majority of the refunds have been completed and we have made changes to our internal systems to resolve these matters,” said Evelyn Mitchell, Regions spokeswoman.
Overdraft fees average about $35, and can be charged when consumers write checks or make electronic payments, purchases or withdrawals that exceed the available balance in their checking accounts. Prior to Dodd-Frank, consumers complained that they were often automatically enrolled in pricey overdraft coverage, which could cause them to incur $35 fees on small debit card purchases that sent their bank balances only a few dollars into the red. Dodd-Frank requires banks to simply reject such transactions unless account holders have affirmatively opted-in to the coverage.
But Regions kept on charging a subset of consumers overdraft fees without their express consent after Dodd-Frank took effect in 2010, the CFPB said. Regions customers who had previously linked their checking accounts to savings accounts or lines of credit were not asked to opt in for overdraft coverage, and kept on incurring fees as high as $36 per transaction.
Thirteen months after the mandatory compliance date, the bank discovered its error in an internal review, but kept charging the illegal fees for an additional year, the CFPB said. Finally, in June 2012, the bank’s computers were re-programmed to stop charging the fees.
It’s been a challenge for the bank to identify all impacted consumers. In December 2012, the bank voluntarily refunded $35 million to consumers who wrongly paid fees. In 2013, the CFPB alerted the bank to more victims, and it refunded an additional $12.8 million. This January, the bank found even more victims. The consent order issued by the CFPB today requires the bank to hire an independent consultant to identify any remaining consumers who are entitled to a refund.
The bank is also accused of making nearly $2 million by charging overdraft fees in connection with its deposit advance product after promising it wouldn’t charge such fees. Consumers who agree to a deposit advance loan receive money in their checking account in anticipation of a future deposit, often a direct deposit. When Regions collected from consumers’ accounts, and the payment was higher than the available balance, the bank sometimes changed overdraft fees, despite saying it would not do so. Between November 2011 and August 2013, the bank charged non-sufficient funds fees and overdraft charges of about $1.9 million to more than 36,000 customers, the CFPB said.
The bank was ordered to identify and fix any errors on consumers’ credit reports related to the illegal overdraft fees, and to pay a $7.5 million fine. The CFPB warned that the fine could have been higher. (Consumers can check for errors by getting their free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, and can watch for issues by getting their free credit report summary, updated every 14 days on Credit.com.)
“Regions’ violations and its delay in escalating them to senior executives and correcting the errors could have justified a larger penalty, but the Bureau credited Regions for making reimbursements to consumers and promptly self-reporting these issues to the Bureau once they were brought to the attention of senior management,” the CFPB said in a statement.
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