by David Lazarus
Thousands of Wells Fargo customers received a rude awakening this week
when they attempted to access their bank accounts via the Internet.
A box opened up on their computer screens seemingly declaring that if
the customer wants to continue banking online, he or she has to agree
to allow Wells Fargo to make all future communications electronically,
not on paper.
Accepting this and other conditions then causes a second box to open,
this time containing an 11,000-word document written in frequently
The document, Wells' "online access agreement," must also be accepted
before a customer is once again permitted to bank via the Net. There's
no summary of the voluminous contract's contents or any indication of
what might be new.
Vallejo resident John Rice was among numerous Wells Fargo customers
who had questions about what they were being asked to accept -- and
concerns about being limited to electronic communication with their
"I feel really uncomfortable with having to depend on the Internet to
get important information," Rice said. "I just don't think it's as
secure as some people think it is."
First off, I've read the 11,000-word contract. There's nothing in
there that jumps out as being unusually customer-unfriendly. But there
are a number of provisions that may be a surprise to people who've
never taken the time to read one of these things.
More on that in a moment.
As for the online-only communication requirement, it's apparently not
as bad as Wells has made it out to be. You wouldn't know that, though,
from the wording of the bank's mandatory "E-sign consent" form.
It stipulates that "all of the disclosures, records and other
information being provided to you may, at Wells Fargo's sole
discretion, be in electronic form."
It adds that "information provided in electronic form will not be
distributed in paper unless you contact the customer service unit
responsible for the particular product or service you are obtaining and
request a paper version of a particular document."
If you do this, however, "you may be subject to a fee for such
The document says customers can later change their preference about
receiving "all information in electronic form," but "withdrawal of
consent may cancel your access to this and/or all services available
through online banking."
Not surprisingly, many Wells Fargo customers said they interpreted
this to mean they'd have to agree to receive all statements, policy
changes and other communications via the Net if they want to retain
online access to their accounts.
Michele Scott, a Wells spokeswoman, said by e-mail that this isn't the
Customers, she said, "are not signing up for any additional online
services such as online statements."
"By accepting these agreements, the way they bank with us today does
not change," Scott said. "For example, if customers receive statements
in the mail, they will continue to do so."
She didn't respond to follow-up questions about what precisely the
bank means when it refers to all "disclosures, records and other
information" being sent electronically.
Scott did, however, appear to confirm that Wells Fargo customers will
indeed be shut out from accessing their accounts online unless they
accept the two documents.
"If customers do not provide consent, they are making a decision to
not accept the terms and conditions of using our online banking
services," she said.
In fact, a Wells insider told me the main change here is that
confirmations of online transactions will now arrive by e-mail.
The insider said the bank has been swamped this week with calls from
people who didn't understand Wells' intentions. Call-center workers
have had to be briefed on how to handle the flood of complaints, the
San Francisco resident Mark Wiker, who has been banking online with
Wells for years, said he'd rather not receive any important communica-
tions from the bank by e-mail.
"I get tons of e-mail, like most people," he said. "Lots of things can
slip by and not get seen."
For those who do agree to the terms of the bank's E-sign consent, next
comes the 11,000-word contract, which runs 21 pages if printed for
Much of the document consists of boilerplate legal jargon typical to
many customer-service agreements. Some of the provisions, though, may
raise eyebrows among Wells customers.
For example, the contract states that the bank's online banking
service may not be available "at certain times." In such circum-
stances, it says, customers "may use our touch-tone service" on
What it doesn't say is that if you end up speaking with an actual
human being during that call, it could cost an extra $2.
The contract also specifies that Wells, like most banks, may use third
parties to process online transactions, and that if you don't use
Wells' online Bill Pay service for three months, it might cancel your
access to the service.
The contract says Wells can "in our sole discretion from time to time
change this agreement by adding new provisions or by modifying or
deleting existing provisions."
"Your continued use of the service following the effective date of any
modification of this agreement or revocation of any waiver will show
your consent to that modification or revocation of waiver," it says.
Moreover, the contract states that customers' personal information may
be used "to determine your eligibility for products and services that
may be offered by Wells Fargo affiliates."
It says that "Wells Fargo or any of its officers, directors,
shareholders, parents, subsidiaries, affiliates, agents, licensors or
third-party service providers" can't be held accountable for any
damages that may result from use of the online service.
And after spending about 10,000 words on all that and much more, the
contract finally states that "it is your responsibility to review this
order to be aware of any such changes."
"Who has the time to sift through 11,000 words?" responded Wiker, who
works for a San Francisco law firm. "Nobody does. A summary would have
For Jesse Dunn, a San Francisco Web developer, what really rankled was
the way Wells just sprang the two documents on customers. There was no
prior notice, no grace period in which the contracts could be
"It was just waiting for people when they tried to log in," Dunn said.
"You either accepted or you couldn't access your accounts."
In her e-mail, Wells' Scott indicated that the bank believes it's
doing customers a good turn.
"Our intent with this updated online access agreement was to simplify
our process in response to customer feedback about receiving
additional agreements when enrolling in each new online service," she
David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Send
tips or feedback to email@example.com.
Copyright 2006 SFGate.com