M&T; to Refund $2.9 Million to Approximately 59,000 Account Holders Who Paid Fees for Free Checking
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took action against M&T; Bank for deceptively advertising free checking accounts. The CFPB found that M&T; lured in consumers with promises of “no strings attached” free checking, without disclosing key eligibility requirements. When consumers failed to meet the requirements, M&T; automatically switched them to checking accounts with fees. M&T; will provide $2.9 million in refunds to the approximately 59,000 consumers deceived into paying fees and it will pay a $200,000 penalty for the violations.
“Although M&T; promised people free checking, tens of thousands of consumers ended up paying for a product they had thought was free,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This is an important reminder to all banks and credit unions that they cannot misstate to consumers whether a financial product or service is free. Today we are putting $2.9 million back in the pockets of consumers as a result.”
M&T; Bank, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., is a retail bank that offers various deposit account products and has hundreds of branches in the northeastern U.S. During a routine CFPB supervision exam, the CFPB found that M&T; was advertising a “Free Checking” account, then converting many consumers into a fee-based “M&T; First” account. Banks and credit unions are prohibited from deceptively advertising deposit accounts. If an account is described as free or no cost, it cannot, for example, have any maintenance or activity fees, or any fees to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money.
The CFPB found that M&T;:
- Deceptively advertised checking accounts with no strings attached: M&T;’s free checking account advertisements included such ads as, “Untangle yourself from monthly service fees. Get a free checking account at M&T.; No strings attached.” But M&T; did not disclose in such ads that the free checking account customers had to maintain a minimum level of account activity with deposits and withdrawals to maintain the free account. These kinds of ads for free checking ran in various geographic regions through mediums including television, print, and radio. M&T; also marketed the free checking accounts to its customers on their account statements and on ATM screens and receipts.
- Automatically converted many free checking accounts into accounts with fees: If there was no account activity for 90 days, M&T; automatically converted the “Free Checking” accounts to “M&T; First” checking accounts. Consumers with “M&T; First” accounts who failed to maintain an average or combined monthly balance of $1,500 were charged fees of $5 to $14 per month.
- Did not adequately alert consumers to the account conversions: The only indication customers received that their “Free Checking” account had been converted to an “M&T; First” account due to account inactivity was that “M&T; First” would appear on account documents, such as paper statements.
During the period covered in today’s order, M&T; converted approximately 80,000 “Free Checking” accounts to “M&T; First” accounts. Of those, about 59,000 were charged account fees because they did not meet the $1,500 threshold required in the “M&T; First” accounts. M&T; assessed approximately $2.9 million in monthly maintenance fees from these consumers.
Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the CFPB has the authority to take action against institutions violating consumer financial laws, including engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. Today’s order covers from Jan. 1, 2009 to Sept. 25, 2012, when M&T; stopped the conversions. Among the things the CFPB’s order requires of M&T;:
- Refund $2.9 million to consumers: M&T; must refund each of the approximately 59,000 affected consumers the sum of all monthly maintenance fees they paid under the “M&T; First” accounts. If the consumers have a current checking, savings, or money market account with the bank, they will receive a credit to their account. For closed or inactive accounts, M&T; will send a check to the affected consumers or reduce charged-off balances by the amount they were charged in fees.
- Update credit reports: In the cases where M&T; closed an account due to a negative balance, M&T; will provide updated information to each credit reporting agency to which M&T; had previously furnished information.
- End all deceptive advertising: M&T; cannot misrepresent, or assist in misrepresenting, that a checking account is free when the terms and conditions of the account impose account activity requirements or when the account will convert to an account with monthly maintenance fees if the account activity requirements are not met.
- Pay a $200,000 fine: M&T; will make a $200,000 penalty payment to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit consumerfinance.gov.