Wells Fargo's big mortgage ripoff

July 20, 2011: 5:41 PM ET

What do you have to do to get slapped with the Federal Reserve's biggest-ever consumer-protection fine?

You have to rip off mortgage borrowers by the thousand. The Fed alleges Wells Fargo (WFC) did just that during the housing boom, bilking "possibly more than 10,000" out of sums reaching as high as $20,000 by slapping them with high-cost loans when they would have qualified for cheaper ones.

The Fed fined Wells $85 million Wednesday for fraud, deceptive claims and unsafe banking practices for its mortgage lending practices between 2004 and 2008. It also told the bank to compensate wronged customers. Those sums could run into the millions of dollars, going by Fed figures.

What did Wells do? Commission-hungry salespeople at Wells Fargo Financial, a subprime loan shop the bank shut down last year after the mortgage market cratered, "altered or falsified income documents and inflated prospective borrowers' incomes to qualify those borrowers for loans that they would not otherwise have been qualified to receive," the Fed said. In a familiar tale, the bank also sold people who would have qualified for low-cost loans costlier ones.

Wells, of course, neither admitted nor denied anything – except for having a culture of fairness. Of some 300,000 loans it made over the relevant period, just 4% or so were abusive, the bank estimates. A spokesman says Wells doesn't have any estimates of the ultimate cost of making customers whole, because it must first identify those wronged in a Fed-supervised process.

"The alleged actions committed by a relatively small group of team members are not what we stand for at Wells Fargo," said CEO John Stumpf. Thank goodness for small favors.

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