by Jeff Sovern
As we have reported a number of times, Wells Fargo opened millions of unauthorized accounts over a period of years. Estimates of how many range from two million to 3.5 million. So you might expect many complaints about that to the CFPB complaint database. On the other hand, considerable empirical research shows that consumers rarely complain about problems, see, e.g., Arthur Best & Alan R. Andreasen, Consumer Response to Unsatisfactory Purchases: A Survey of Perceiving Defects, Voicing Complaints, and Obtaining Redress, 11 LAv & Soc'Y REV. 701, (1977), and so there might be far fewer than millions of such complaints. In addition, the Bureau doesn't post complaints unless consumers have agreed that it can do so, and so it might have received complaints that are not in the public record. So what's your prediction about how many complaints?
I asked my research assistant, Amanda M. Schafer to read through the CPFB Complaint Database public complaints about Wells Fargo for one recent year, 2015, to see how many were about the unauthorized accounts. We can't be certain that all the complaints she came up with involved Wells employees opening accounts, because often you can't tell from the narrative whether the account was opened by a Wells Fargo employee, an external identity thief, or an employee of a retailer which offered an affiliated Wells credit card. But if we assume all of the possible complaints were about accounts opened by Wells employees, she found 19. We still don't know how many consumers decided to keep their complaints private, but even if we assume that ten or twenty times as many did, that still doesn't seem like many complaints for a scam that snared millions.
What can we tell from this? It tends to confirm that consumers rarely do anything when they are cheated (which tells us something about why class actions reach more consumers than individual arbitration). It also suggests that consumers may not read bank statements. Maybe those who complained communicated only with Wells and not the Bureau. Any other thoughts? If so, please post them in the comments.
UPDATE: Amanda has calculated that only 26% of the Wells complaints filed in 2015 are public. If we assume that the number of public complaints on an issue bears the same proportion to the total complaints on that issue as the number of public complaints does to total complaints, that would mean the Bureau received about 76 possible complaints about Wells employees opening unauthorized accounts. Again, even if we assume that number understates the number of complaints by a factor of ten or twenty, it still seems very low for a scam the resulted in at least two million unauthorized accounts.