US bank shells out millions in refund

MARCY GORDON
Last updated 10:05 10/04/2014

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Bank of America is paying US$772 million ($888 million) in fines and refunds to settle regulators' accusations that it misled customers who bought extra credit-card products and illegally charged others for credit monitoring and reporting services they didn't receive.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced the agreement on Wednesday with the second-largest US bank.

It is the largest settlement over credit card "add-ons" won by federal regulators, who have been examining the marketing of the products by the financial industry for several years.

It also marked the biggest refund amount ordered to date by the CFPB, a consumer watchdog agency created by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The agency has operated since mid-2011.

The regulators said about 2.9 million customers were affected in the Bank of America case.

They say telemarketers made sales pitches for two credit-protection products that were misleading about their costs and benefits.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America neither admitted nor denied the allegations. The bank said in a statement it already has issued refunds to the majority of affected customers.

Bank of America also said it stopped selling identity-theft protection products in December 2011, and terminated in August 2012 products offering debt relief for customers who lost their jobs or suffered other hardships.

The bank marketed two credit protection "add-on" services from 2010 through 2012 that allowed customers to ask for some credit-card debt to be cancelled if they lost their jobs or suffered other hardship.

The regulators said the telemarketers often went off script to make sales pitches that were misleading and left out important information.

For example, some customers were falsely led to believe they'd be entitled to a US$25,000 "death benefit" by taking Credit Protection Plus.

Rather than being automatically awarded as portrayed, customers had to complete an approval process to receive the benefit, the regulators said.

Bank of America also was accused of billing customers for several identity-theft protection products without getting their authorisation or prior to getting it.

Of the US$772m in refunds, about US$459m is going to some 1.5 million consumers who enrolled in the credit monitoring products and were said to be wrongly charged.

The bank also is paying a US$20m penalty to the CFPB and a US$25m penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a Treasury Department agency.

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"We will continue to be vigilant in pursuit of anyone who deceives or mistreats consumers," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a conference call with reporters.

"We intend to continue cleaning up this market as necessary to ensure that consumers are treated fairly."

As regulators have cracked down on marketing of credit card "add-ons" in recent years, financial experts say many banks have discontinued the products.

The settlement with Bank of America was the consumer agency's fifth agreement with a major bank over credit card "add-ons."

In September, number one US bank JPMorgan Chase & Co agreed to pay US$80m in fines and about US$309m in refunds in an agreement with the CFPB and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for allegedly billing customers for ID theft protection they never received.

The CFPB also reached earlier settlements with American Express, Discover Financial Services and Capital One Financial.

Shares of Bank of America rose 11 cents to US$16.55 in afternoon trading. Its shares are have risen more than 5.6 per cent so far this year.

- AP

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