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Card, debt violations cost American Express $112M

Published October 1, 2012 9:46 pm

Probe • Company agrees to give refunds, pay fine for credit and debt violations.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

American Express has agreed to pay $112 million in refunds and fines to settle Utah and federal regulators' accusations that the financial services giant charged unlawful late fees and deceived customers to pressure them to pay off old debts or buy extra credit card services.

The company agreed to the settlements announced Monday by the Utah Department of Financial Institutions and four federal agencies — the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

American Express is refunding $85 million to about 250,000 customers and is paying $27.5 million in civil fines.

In a statement, American Express did not dispute the allegations. The company said it has developed fixes for each of the violations, agreed to pay the fines and would establish funds to repay customers.

"We worked closely with the regulators and cooperated with them throughout the reviews, and we took responsibility for correcting the issues and are compensating customers where appropriate," spokeswoman Marina Norville said.

The Utah Department of Financial Institutions and the FDIC discovered the violations during a routine examination of American Express Centurion Bank, an American Express subsidiary based in Salt Lake City.

Paul Allred, deputy commissioner of the Utah department, declined to comment about the violations. He said the department elected not to impose penalties against American Express because the civil fines and orders of restitution were sufficient.

The FDIC transferred portions of the investigation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the agency opened its doors last year. The CFPB concluded that many of the same violations that occurred at American Express Centurion Bank also took place at New York-based American Express Travel Related Services Co. and at American Express Bank FSB, based in Salt Lake City.

The agencies said American Express violated federal laws prohibiting deceptive practices by using false statements to get customers to settle old debts. The regulators say that included falsely telling customers that if they agreed to settlements to partially pay off their debts, the remaining balance would be forgiven.

The violations were said to have occurred from 2003 to this past spring.

The director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray, said in a statement that the company violated consumer-protection laws "at all stages of the game — from the moment a consumer shopped for a card to the moment the consumer got a phone call about long overdue debt."

American Express also charged late fees on some credit cards based on a percentage of the debt owed, a violation of a 2009 law prohibiting certain credit card practices, the regulators said.

They said customers were sometimes led to believe they would get $300, as well as bonus rewards points, if they signed up for Amex's "Blue Sky" credit card program. Customers who met the conditions didn't receive the promised $300, according to the agencies.

In addition, they said the company:

• Unlawfully discriminated against consumers applying for new card accounts on the basis of age.

• Failed to report customer disputes over billing to the consumer-credit reporting agencies.

New York-based American Express agreed to end the practices and to hire independent auditors to ensure the company's compliance with consumer-protection laws.

The Associated Press contributed to this story —

What American Express did

Used false statements to get customers to settle old debts.

Improperly charged late fees on credit cards based on a percentage of debt owed.

Unlawfully discriminated against consumers applying for new card accounts on the basis of age.

Failed to report customer disputes over billing to the consumer-credit reporting agencies. —

What the Utah-based units of American Express do

American Express Centurion Bank and American Express Bank FSB issue a wide range of card products to consumers and small businesses in the United States.