Wells Fargo under probe for alleged identity theft

A man riding by a branch of Wells Fargo bank in Los Angeles on Oct 3, 2016.
A man riding by a branch of Wells Fargo bank in Los Angeles on Oct 3, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Wells Fargo, which created two million unauthorized accounts for its customers, is under criminal investigation in California over alleged identity theft, according to documents obtained by AFP on Wednesday (Oct 19).

The documents, confirming information reported by the Los Angeles Times, were obtained from the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Harris ordered the third-largest US bank by assets to provide a trove of information, including the identities of the California customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their names and those of the Wells Fargo employees who opened them, according to a search warrant served October 5.

Harris wants to know whether Wells Fargo violated California laws prohibiting certain types of impersonation and the unauthorized use of personal information, the documents showed.

Both violations can be charged as felonies, punishable by imprisonment for more than a year, the Los Angeles Times noted, adding that it was not clear whether Harris's office is considering charges against individual bank workers, high-level bank executives or the bank itself.

For the California investigator, James Hirt, there may be links suggesting that Wells Fargo employees illegally used the bank's computer system to obtain personal information about customers.

Hirt indicated that they could be guilty of identity theft to open the bogus accounts.

Wells Fargo, whose biggest shareholder is billionaire Warren Buffett, has been reeling since US and California regulators revealed in September some two million deposit and credit card accounts were opened in customers' names between 2011 and 2016 without their approval.

Wells Fargo paid a fine of US$185 million for the fake accounts and fired some 5,300 mid- and low-ranked employees linked to them.

The scandal led to the resignation of chairman and chief executive John Stumpf last week. He was succeeded as CEO by president and chief operating officer Tim Sloan, a 29-year company veteran, who promised transparency and tighter oversight.

An internal Wells Fargo inquiry is also underway.

The bank is under investigation by the Justice and Labor departments and could face lawsuits from shareholders and customers.

Some US states, including California and Illinois, have cut ties with the bank.