For the first time, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has taken action against a bank for violating regulations governing bank overdraft fees.
The bureau announced Tuesday that Regions Bank has been fined $7.5 million for charging overdraft fees to thousands of consumers who had not opted-in for overdraft coverage. The fine comes on top of a consent order with the bureau, also announced Monday, requiring the Birmingham, Ala.-based bank to pay back all consumers who had been affected by the unwarranted overdafts.
“Today the CFPB is taking its first enforcement action under the rules that protect consumers against illegal overdraft fees by their banks,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Regions Bank failed to ask consumers if they wanted overdraft service before charging them fees. In the end, hundreds of thousands of consumers paid at least $49 million in illegal charges. We take the issue of overdraft fees very seriously and will be vigilant about making sure that consumers receive the protections they deserve.”
Regions Bank operates approximately 1,700 retail branches and 2,000 ATMs across 16 states. With more than $119 billion in assets, it is one of the country's largest banks.
First such action
The action taken by the bureau is the first time it has punished a bank for violating overdraft regulations since new federal rules took effect in 2010, part of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, that prohibited banks and credit unions from charging overdraft fees on ATM and one-time debit card transactions unless consumers affirmatively opted in. If consumers don’t opt-in, banks may decline the transaction, but won’t charge a fee.
The bureau found that Regions bank allowed consumers to link their checking accounts to savings accounts or lines of credit. Once that link was established, funds from the linked account would automatically be transferred to cover a shortage in a consumer’s checking account. But Regions never provided customers with linked accounts an opportunity to opt in for overdraft. Because those consumers had not opted in, Regions could have simply declined ATM or one-time debit card transactions that exceeded the available balance in both the checking and linked accounts. Instead, the bank paid those transactions, tacking on and overdraft fee of $36, in violation of the opt-in rule.
However, Regions Bank had been aware of the issue for some time. According to the bureau, an internal bank review revealed the violation 13 months after the new overdraft rules went into effect. The bureau said that senior executives at the bank were not made aware of the issue for another year after that, at which point they notified the CPFB. In June 2012, the bank reprogrammed its systems to stop charging the unauthorized fees. Then, this past January, the bank discovered more bank accounts that had been charged unauthorized fees.
The bureau also said that Regions charged overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees with its deposit advance product, called Regions Ready Advance, despite claiming it would not. Specifically, if the bank collected payment from the consumer’s checking account that would cause the consumer’s balance to drop below zero the bank would either cover the transaction and charge an overdraft fee or reject its own transaction and charge a non-sufficient funds fee. At various times from November 2011 until August 2013, the bank charged non-sufficient funds fees and overdraft charges of about $1.9 million to more than 36,000 customers.
Regions Bank voluntarily reimbursed approximately 200,000 consumers a total of nearly $35 million in December 2012 for the illegal overdraft fees discovered then. After the bureau alerted the bank to more affected consumers, Regions returned an additional $12.8 million in December 2013. In January 2015, the bank identified even more affected consumers and is now required to provide them with a full refund. Regions has been ordered to hire an independent consultant to identify all remaining consumers who were charged the illegal fees. Regions will return these fees to consumers, if not already refunded. If the consumers have a current account with the bank, they will receive a credit to their account. For closed or inactive accounts, Regions will send a check to the affected consumers.
The $7.5 million fine the bank has been ordered to pay could have been larger, according to the bureau, which noted the delay in notifiying senior bank officials of the violations. But the bureau credited Regions for making reimbursements to consumers and promptly self-reporting these issues to the Bureau once they were brought to the attention of senior management.