The Wells Fargo fake account scandal that erupted in 2016 is an extreme case, but there’s no question that bank employees are often under considerable pressure to sell bank products and services. And that pressure may lead them to use trickery or even outright lies to meet their sales quotas. Bankers and tellers may also lie about how certain bank services work because they know that the truth would be pretty unappetizing, and they want to avoid a confrontation.
Have your bank’s employees told you any of the following fibs?
1. Online banking is perfectly safe. It’s hard to find a bank these days that doesn’t offer some form of online banking, and many also provide smartphone access through apps and mobile-friendly websites. Unfortunately, despite banks’ best efforts, there is no such thing as a 100% secure website. Just consider Citibank’s 2011 online banking breach, which affected 360,000 credit cardholders.
Does this mean you shouldn’t use online banking? No, but it does mean you should take precautions, such as setting up alerts to warn you if certain transactions take place and making sure your username and password are secure (i.e., complex and different from all of your other online logins).
2. To upgrade you, we’ll need to open a new account. Some years ago, I paid a visit to my local Wells Fargo branch to see about switching to a different type of savings account that would get me lower monthly fees and a better rate of interest. The banker informed me that he would need to close down my old savings account and open a new one in order to get me into the new type of account. In reality, banks can switch you from one type of savings or checking account to another without changing anything else about your account. A banker who says otherwise is almost certainly looking to pad their quota of new accounts. If a banker tries a similar line of argument on you, ask to speak with the manager or consider switching banks.
3. Keeping a high balance in your checking account is sound financial practice. Banks often structure their account rules and fees to encourage customers to keep large balances in their checking accounts. This is great for the banks, because checking accounts typically pay little or no interest. If everyone kept the bare minimum in their checking accounts and moved the rest of their funds into savings, banks would end up paying out a lot more interest. Try to keep just enough in your checking account to cover your expenses and regularly sweep the rest into a savings account.
This is one of the many times when having a comprehensive budget can really help: If you know exactly what’s going to come out of your account during the month, you can leave just enough to cover your expenses in checking and make a little extra interest on the rest.
4. Opening a new credit card will improve your credit score. If you’ve maxed out your existing credit cards, opening a new one can indeed help your credit score by reducing your ratio of debt to available credit, which is also known as your “credit card utilization” percentage. But if you already have plenty of available credit, opening a new card won’t help you. In fact, it can lower your credit score by adding another credit inquiry to your report.
The impact of a credit inquiry is typically small -- no more than five points off your score -- but why take a five-point hit if you don’t have to, especially since inquiries remain on your credit report for up to two years?
5. I’m here to advise you. Unfortunately, bankers often consider themselves salespeople, rather than advisors. That’s inevitable, given that many banks require bankers and tellers to sell a certain number of new products and services to customers, and may pay commissions for doing so. Indeed, Wells Fargo bankers reported that failing to meet sales quotas could get them fired. This places bank employees in a situation where they are rewarded for selling new products -- whether or not the customer needs them. Given this conflict of interest, bank employees may urge you to get new accounts and services for the flimsiest of reasons. If a banker or teller suggests you open a new account, don’t agree unless you can see a clear and compelling reason to do so.
There’s no need to suspect that every banker you encounter is trying to fleece you, and many banks are staffed with employees who are looking out for your best interests. Just be sure to go into any conversation with both eyes wide open -- and be sure to investigate any dubious claims like the ones listed above.