John and Dorothy Laguna opened a Wells Fargo checking account in 2014.
Wells Fargo opened three more accounts in the Laguna’s name soon after – several of the millions of fake accounts the bank opened without people’s permission to meet sales quotas.
The Dana Point couple then joined a massive class action lawsuit against Wells, which in 2017 resulted in a $142 million settlement. The bank also paid billions of dollars in fines.
The Lagunas share in the colony was about one hundred dollars. But OK, the couple has decided. They were ready to move on.
“I thought we were done with them,” 82-year-old John Laguna told me.
No. Last fall, they began receiving notices from Wells that a payment of $104.79 was overdue for a charge on one of the fake accounts opened in their name that the Lagunas assumed had been closed there. years old.
The charge was for a meal at a Florida sushi restaurant. The couple were at home in Southern California at the time. They never went to Florida.
“The bank told us not to worry about it,” Laguna said. “They said they would take care of it.”
Two months later, getting nowhere, he turned to me for help. And I was happy to oblige.
But it’s a bittersweet moment.
This is my last column for the Los Angeles Times. Starting next week, I’ll be on full-time television.
While the prospect of a new chapter in my career as a journalist is very exciting – I will continue to fight the good fight on behalf of consumers – it marks the end of my tenure as a journalist.
I’ve worked for newspapers since I was a student at UC Berkeley, including the San Francisco Examiner, the Bangkok Post, the Japan Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and now the largest newsroom west of the Mississippi .
I need not stress the precarious state of the newspaper industry. This industry is now very different from the one I fell in love with in college.
I pray for things to get better – both for my hard-working colleagues and for the millions of Americans who rely on a free press to speak truth to power and safeguard democracy.
It’s customary, I guess, to indulge in a little recap when making a major career change. I’ve been writing this column – first for the Chronicle, now for the Times – for almost a quarter of a century.
The criticism I’ve heard most often is that I’m anti-business. Not so. I believe in capitalism and have great respect for business people who serve so many of society’s needs.
What I am is pro-equity. What I am is pro-responsibility.
I believe it is perfectly acceptable to make a profit as long as that profit is made fairly and honestly, and by treating customers with the respect they deserve.
But when companies cross the line — when they make money from unfair, unethical, or abusive practices — that’s when they need to be called to task.
And for 25 years now (and counting), I’ve had the privilege of being someone people could look up to right wrongs, solve problems, and maybe restore some decency to the world of business.
Long-time readers know the industries that came up most often in my columns. These include hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that charge ridiculous amounts for health care.
They include insurers who drop patients when needed, banks who leave customers at the mercy of scammers, tech companies who say they’re here to change the world but are more interested in robbing you of the little l intimacy remains.
People often point out that, given the rapacious behavior of many companies, I will never be out of work as a consumer advocate. Sad but true.
Yet I am encouraged by entrepreneurs who recognize an opportunity to succeed by treating people well, not to mention the many, many businessmen I have met over the years whose hearts are in the right place, even if they are often paralyzed by policies that limit their ability to act.
At the same time, not a week goes by that someone does not share with me an act of corporate pettiness, an unnecessary outrage, which makes me wonder, once again, why some companies feel they can treat their customers with apparent contempt.
It’s so useless. It’s so incredibly myopic.
And that’s just plain wrong.
That was my mindset the other day when the Lagunas contacted me with their situation at Wells Fargo.
Here are two people who opened a Wells account with a natural expectation that the bank would be a trustworthy steward of their money.
They could not have known that at the same time that they were becoming customers, Wells was behaving with breathtaking greed and dishonesty, opening an estimated 3.5 million deposit and credit card accounts without the approval of people.
At first, the bank tried to blame the rogue employees and fired over 5,000 workers. Then came reports that Wells was also illegally repossessing service members’ cars, buying insurance they didn’t need and wrongly charging mortgage customers.
Lawmakers accused then-chief executive John Stumpf of leading a “criminal enterprise”. He quit his job.
In the end, as fines and lawsuits piled up, Wells Fargo took out full-page newspaper ads to express “regret” for past acts. The bank said it had learned valuable lessons and turned over a new leaf.
His treatment of the Lagunas suggests he still has some way to go.
The couple continued to receive notices of unpaid charges on the bogus account that Wells had opened — and should have closed — in their name.
They kept phoning the bank to resolve the issue and were told not to worry, Wells knew about it. And then another payment due notice would come.
“We started thinking it might affect our credit score,” Laguna told me. “It has become a real problem.”
A problem that should never have happened and should have been resolved immediately. Yet as the weeks went on, Laguna said he had no idea from the bank that it was taking the matter seriously or dealing with it urgently.
As I noted above, hassles like this are completely unnecessary. Maybe they’re driving business nickel-and-dime payoffs from people throwing in the towel and paying whatever is demanded.
But more often than not, all they accomplish is a waste of any goodwill that might exist and a transmission that the company doesn’t care about you or your loyalty.
In November, I wrote about Wells Fargo charging some mortgage customers a $30 fee to transfer money from one division of the bank to another when paying off their loan.
Unable to satisfactorily defend such a ridiculous charge, Wells told me it would eliminate the charges.
In the case of the Lagunas, I contacted the bank and asked, as is so often the case, what is it?
And, as is so often the case, the attention of a reporter and the implied threat of PR success prompted Wells to take a closer look and escalate the matter to someone. empowered to do something.
Laguna said that following my intervention, he received a call from a senior vice president of the bank who promised to finally put a stake in the heart of the fake account and make the sushi fee disappear from 104 $.79.
Wells also said he would send the Lagunas a check for $125.
“We strive to do everything we can to fight fraud, protect consumers and support victims of fraud,” said Mary Eshet, spokeswoman for the bank. “When we are made aware of potential fraud, we have a thorough investigation process to seek out the claim.”
She said Wells was sorry “for the inconvenience and difficulty” experienced by the Lagunas. “We regret this has happened and continue to evaluate and make improvements to our practices and procedures.”
Laguna replied that he appreciated the sentiment but still considered the episode “a total fiasco”.
“A few days ago they were saying I had to file a police report and submit all kinds of documents,” he said. “Now, apparently, that’s not necessary.”
Like most consumers I write about, Laguna said it shouldn’t take a reporter to force a company to do the right thing. “It’s something they have to deal with themselves, after just one call from a customer.”
I couldn’t agree more.
And if such a 180 degree change in corporate behavior puts me out of work, so be it. It’s a fight I’d be happy to finish. There are other stories to report.
In the meantime, the dance continues.
I may no longer be a proud inhabitant of these pages or this website. But I’m still here, still defending the little guy.
See you soon on TV.