Capital One repays consumers to end card probe

WASHINGTON — Capital One Bank will pay $210 million to settle federal charges that it tricked credit card customers into buying costly add-on services like payment protection and credit monitoring.

Most of the money will go directly to refund customers who were led to believe the services were free or mandatory or offered more benefits than they did, officials said Wednesday.

The order against Capital One is the first enforcement action by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was set up a year ago to protect consumers from excessive or hidden fees and other financial threats.

Under its agreement with the CFPB, Capital One will pay about $150 million to 2.5 million customers and an additional $25 million penalty. Capital One will pay a $35 million penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a separate federal agency that oversees its banking operations.

The refunds will go to customers who bought add-on card services between August 2010 and January 2012. They will receive the full amount of fees they paid and any other related costs.

CFPB officials said they observed heavy-handed tactics by Capital One call center workers as they monitored the bank’s operations. The CFPB can oversee the biggest banks and certain other companies by stationing employees at their headquarters.

The charges hinge on the consumer bureau’s allegation that Capital One’s call-center vendors were “deceptive” in selling the add-on services. The CFPB can charge companies engaged in “unfair, deceptive or abusive practices.”

Banks and consumer groups have been locked in a public battle about how the young agency would use that power. Wednesday’s action provided the first clue to its plans. The CFPB held Capital One responsible for the behavior of a third-party vendor, a rare but not unheard-of decision by federal regulators.

The CFPB’s action was also notable for requiring automatic refunds to consumers who were duped — a simple process compared with the mailings and paperwork involved in most class-action settlements.

The action solidifies the role of an agency whose very existence remains a subject of stiff debate on Capitol Hill.

Republicans wanted it to be run by a bipartisan commission instead of an independent director and wanted Congress to have power over the agency’s budget. The agency’s champions say the agency needed independence to avoid outside influence.

Republicans delayed some of the agency’s powers by holding up the appointment of its director, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. President Barack Obama installed Cordray in January using a recess appointment that Republicans say was not valid.

In a statement Wednesday, Cordray said the agency is “putting companies on notice that these deceptive practices are against the law and will not be tolerated.”

Capital One said the third-party vendor had violated its instructions. Still, Capitol One card division president Ryan Schneider apologized to customers in a statement, adding, “We are accountable for actions that vendors take on our behalf.”

The consumer bureau, which was created under the Obama administration’s financial overhaul law, is the first federal regulator focused on protecting consumers, rather than on ensuring that banks are stable and profitable.

Its officials referred the issue to the agency’s enforcement division.

The $25 million penalty will go to the CFPB’s civil penalty fund, which is used to refund victims of consumer abuse and pay for financial education programs.

Capital One settled the matter without admitting or denying the allegations described by its regulators. Stock of the parent company, Capital One Financial Corp., fell 51 cents to $55.32.

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