Why I Stopped Banking With Wells Fargo

I have to start acting in accordance with my values.

Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.

Until last November, I’d never phoned a congressperson. In fact, I couldn’t have named the three that represent me in Brooklyn. I’d never signed a petition, never showed up anywhere to march in protest. The limits of what I considered my political activism consisted of signing up for a monthly donation to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2012 and spending the next four years trying to figure out if I could deduct it from my taxes.

And, until last November, that seemed like enough. Although it’s reductive to say that America’s vast and fractured justice issues looked like they were moving in a positive direction, certain milestones made me feel as if things would continue to go well — with or without my participation. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage and struck down specious demands on abortion providers. In NYC, where I live, we elected a mayor committed to reducing Stop and Frisk police practices that unfairly targeted black communities. All I had to do was show up every couple of years to vote, and pat myself on the back every time I got a form thank-you e-mail from Cecile Richards.

That’s why the Trump presidency came as such a shock — not only to me, but to so many of my peers who believed that positive social change would continue to march onward, even if we weren’t doing any marching ourselves. This naiveté certainly isn’t the only factor responsible for the outcome of the 2016 election (hello, foreign interference from abroad coupled with a healthy dose of sexism, racism, and xenophobia on the home front!) but it did come as a wake-up call. The world wasn’t going to align with my values unless I actually did something about it.

So I began speaking up when I disagreed with what was happening. I called my representatives to ask them to oppose Trump’s cabinet picks who had histories of racist and sexist behavior, then bought a bus ticket to DC for the post-inauguration protest march. When a casual Facebook acquaintance posted something transphobic, I didn’t just cringe, I sent her a message asking her to reconsider. Although her comment wasn’t directly related to the new president, it clearly went against what I believed. For all its negative effects, the Trump administration inspired me to think more carefully about what I valued, and take action when I saw things happening that opposed those values.

Then I read the New York Times’ report on the latest Wells Fargo scandal:

According to three former managers in Prudential’s corporate investigation division, Wells Fargo employees appeared to have signed up bank customers for Prudential insurance without the customers’ knowledge or permission. In some cases, they even arranged for monthly premium fees to be withdrawn from their customers’ accounts.

I started my relationship with Wells Fargo when I was eighteen, signing up for a Wachovia account because they had an ATM across the street from my college cafeteria (Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia in 2008 and transferred over all my accounts soon after). In the past decade, I’d hardly thought twice about that decision; Wells Fargo had an easy mobile app, an ATM in the subway station I took to get to work, and when I made my once-yearly trip into a branch to ask for “nice looking bills” to tip the doormen in our building for Christmas, the tellers were always friendly and accommodating (despite the fact that seeking out “nice looking bills” is without a doubt the most time-consuming and nitpicky request to make during the lunch hour rush).

In fact, when the first Wells Fargo scandal broke this year (the NYT reported in September that Wells Fargo employees, pressured by unrealistic sales targets, had opened fake accounts for numerous customers), I shrugged it off. All banks are probably doing something similarly shady, I told myself, and the fact that Wells Fargo just got caught at it probably means that they’re probably going to act even more carefully in the future. It was like when Chipotle reopened after the E. coli scare: I went in and bought a burrito that day.

Two months later, my feelings were different. The article said that many of the customers who’d reported fraudulent Prudential accounts left messages in Spanish, and while I don’t believe anyone deserves to have their money stolen in this way, it seemed even more repugnant that the scam had targeted such a vulnerable population — people who might have a hard time communicating with the bank in the first place.

That day, I decided once again to take action, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Which makes sense, of course; changing your behavior, even for something as low-stakes as where you go to withdraw money from an ATM, is a hassle. It takes time, and switching up your routine makes users nervous — or at least it made me nervous. After researching several options, I decided to create a new account with Charles Schwab. I was excited, mostly about unlimited ATM-fee reimbursement (even overseas!), but even as I opened my new account, I kept worrying: what if I don’t get my new checks in time? What if their mobile app is buggy? Who’s going to be there to help me find crisp bills next December?

These are pretty laughable worries, but they’re also the price of some of the most basic activism: low-key fears that keep people from standing up for what they believe in because it’s a little nerve-wracking to call a congressperson or speak up when someone at works says something homophobic.

Fortunately for me, my worries were short-lived. In order to make the transition, I applied online for a Schwab account and was approved within a few minutes (FYI, this did do a hard pull on my credit). I linked the Schwab account to my Wells Fargo account through their transaction verification process; Wells Fargo deposited two small amounts into Schwab and then I had to verify what they were.

Then came the tedious part: linking all my other financial processes to Schwab. I usually try to put all my expenses on my Amex (Blue Sky, baby — gotta get those points!) but I still had to link that to Schwab, then Paypal and Venmo, and the handful of other bills that I can’t pay with a credit card, like my rent, renter’s insurance, and electric bill. Some of these just asked for my new routing and account numbers, but some of these required another transaction verification process, which took a few days. Once those had gone through, I still had to wait to transfer my remaining Wells Fargo funds to Schwab because I was about to get paid at work and wasn’t sure my request to change my direct deposit would be immediately effective.

All in all, the switchover took about eight days and maybe 45 minutes of active time — including a final call to Wells Fargo to let them know I was ready to say goodbye once and for all. True to form, the final customer service rep was polite and told me she was sorry that it “had come to this” when I told her that I was closing my account in reaction to the Prudential scandal. I felt bad that she had to deal with this negative interaction, so I tried to be as friendly as possible when asking if she’d please write down the phrase “despicable dealings” on my exit form. She said she’d be sure to include it.

Hannah Thurman is a writer and strategic planner living in Brooklyn, NY.


This story is part of The Billfold’s “Resolve” series.

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