This Single Mom Suspected Illegal Activity at Work—and Broke Open a National Banking Scandal

“I felt like Erin Brockovich. Here’s little me against big Wells Fargo.”

In 2008, Yesenia Guitron, a single mother with two kids, joined the St. Helena, California, branch of Wells Fargo as a personal banker. Just two months into the job, she noticed that coworkers were opening accounts for customers without their consent. “I kept getting more and more people coming in: ‘How come I got this debit card? I didn’t request it,’” Guitron told the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California. Some people found themselves with 10 or 15 debit cards. “That’s when I realized … this was intentional, and there was a very clear pattern.”

Guitron brought her concerns to her branch manager—who ignored her. She went to human resources—still nothing. Undeterred, she called the bank’s ethics department. Ten months later, after she’d kept after her superiors for answers, Guitron was abruptly fired. The reason given by the bank was her failure to make sales goals. (These innocent habits could also get you fired.)

Yev Haidamaka for Reader's Digest
In 2010, Guitron and another employee sued Wells Fargo, claiming the bank had fired Guitron for insubordination. Furthermore, their suit blamed Wells Fargo for unrealistic sales goals that drove too many employees to use illegal means to pad their sales numbers. “I felt like Erin Brockovich,” Guitron told CBS. “Here’s little me against big, powerful Wells Fargo. Nobody’s going to believe what I’m saying.”

Indeed, in 2012 the court sided with the bank. Still, when Guitron’s story broke, more claims of malfeasance by Wells Fargo surfaced, and in 2015 the Los Angeles city attorney’s office sued the bank over the fake accounts. This time, Wells Fargo settled, agreeing to pay $185 million in fines to the city of Los Angeles and two federal agencies, as well as restitution to affected customers. Soon other former Wells Fargo employees began speaking out. One told the New York Times that he was pressured by bosses “to open accounts for friends and family, with or without their knowledge.” Get smart about your banking and study up on these secrets your bank won’t tell you.

In September 2016, Congress took up the cause against the bank’s sales-quota system. “A criminal enterprise,” “a school for scoundrels,” and “a broken culture” were some of the ways Democrats and Republicans described Wells Fargo to the bank’s CEO, John Stumpf. The negative publicity finally took its toll. A month after appearing before Congress, Stumpf retired; this past July the bank agreed to pay $142 million to settle class action lawsuits.

Yesenia Guitron didn’t do as well. In fact, she is out more than $18,600 in legal fees related to her lawsuit. She is also out of banking; she now works as a property manager. Still, she takes pride in knowing that her voice led to a chorus of calls that helped end the Wells Fargo deceit. “To me,” she told CBS, “it’s kind of like, ‘I told you so.’”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.