Banks, like Wells Fargo, use forced arbitration clauses in their contracts, forcing customers to sign away their right to go to court when opening a checking or savings account or getting a debit card or credit card. This means that any disputes between customers and banks over account fees, identity theft, or other charges will be decided by an arbitrator that the bank helps choose, rather than an impartial judge. In 2016, Pew Charitable Trusts studied the account disclosures of 44 of the country’s largest banks and found that 70% included a mandatory arbitration clause.
Aaron Brodie, a 911 dispatcher in Texas, had an unauthorized credit card account opened for him by a former Wells Fargo employee that led him into debt and harmed his credit score, resulting in years of higher interest rates and other costs.
He has since tried to join in a class-action suit against the bank, but Wells Fargo is trying to push him and other plaintiffs into arbitration.
Brodie believes the only way he’ll be able to achieve justice is through the courts, but the Wells Fargo argues that the forced arbitration clauses found in his legitimate account carry over to the fake account. A clause buried in a contract he never signed for a product he never consented to now stands in the way of his accessing his day in court.
In July 2011, Tracy Kilgore went to a local Wells Fargo branch to change a signature card on behalf of the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she volunteered as Treasurer. Tracy did not personally bank with Wells Fargo or have any accounts with them. The bank teller asked her for her name and ID and began typing away her computer, and she promptly left once the change was processed.
Two weeks later, Tracy received a letter from Wells Fargo saying her credit card application had been rejected, though she never applied for one. When she saw the application was filed the day after she had visited the Wells Fargo branch, it became clear the bank tried to open a fraudulent credit card in her name. After Tracy found the rejected application was listed on her credit report, she called and wrote to Wells Fargo for months asking them to remove it. The bank kept saying it would take another 7-10 days, then another 2-3 weeks, to no avail. In the end, she never even got an apology.
Now, Tracy has joined with other defrauded customers in a class action lawsuit against the bank, but Wells Fargo is trying to force each consumer to fight them one-by-one in a biased and secretive arbitration system. Even though Tracy has never banked with Wells Fargo, their lawyers are trying to block her from suing them in court by pointing to an arbitration clause she never signed.