By James Rufus Koren

Los Angeles Times

Wells Fargo & Co. may have opened as many as 3.5 million unauthorized checking, savings and credit card accounts over the past 15 years, far more than the bank and federal regulators reported last year, according to a court filing.

For months, the number of potentially unauthorized accounts that bank employee credit card applications may have created stood at 2.1 million — a number reported by regulators last year.

That figure was based on the San Francisco bank’s analysis of accounts opened and credit card applications submitted between May 2011 and July 2015.

The filing, submitted late Thursday by attorneys who are negotiating a class-action settlement with the bank, suggests an additional 1.4 million unauthorized accounts were opened dating to 2002. That’s the year, according to a recent bank internal investigation, that Wells Fargo executives noticed the problem of employees opening accounts without customer authorization.

The new, higher figure is based on “public information, negotiations, and confirmatory discovery,” according to the filing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The filing also cautions that the 3.5 million figure could be an overestimate, though a reasonable one.

Bank spokesman Ancel Martinez discounted the new number, although the bank has not released an updated figure of its own.

“The unauthorized account numbers reported in the filing are estimates made by plaintiffs’ attorneys based on a hypothetical scenario and have not been verified,” Martinez said.

It seems plausible that the number of potentially unauthorized accounts would be significantly larger than the 2.1 million initially reported, given the longer time period now being scrutinized.

The latest estimate stems from several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of customers; Wells Fargo agreed in March to settle the suits for $110 million.

That deal would have provided payouts to customers who had unauthorized accounts opened for them as early as 2009. But last month, after Wells Fargo’s internal investigation reported problems dating to 2002, the bank agreed to extend the deal back to that point and increase the settlement amount to $142 million.

The attorneys negotiating the deal are not seeking an additional increase in that payout. The estimate of 3.5 million unauthorized accounts came in a document asking U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria to approve the settlement agreement.

The judge will consider the request at a hearing to be held in San Francisco next week.

Settlement documents filed have not made clear how many customers may be eligible for any payout. Many customers have alleged multiple unauthorized accounts were opened in their names.

If the settlement is approved, affected customers would be able to make claims for compensation, so the number of eligible settlement participants may grow beyond attorneys’ expectations.

Tim Sloan, the bank’s chief executive, has said the expansion of the agreement to $142 million was “an important step to make things right for our customers.”

But consumer advocates and attorneys for other Wells Fargo customers have said the revised settlement isn’t enough.

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said Friday that the new estimate of 3.5 million unauthorized accounts shows that regulators and attorneys should continue to dig into the bank’s practices.

“We need to keep Wells Fargo’s feet to the fire,” he said. “We don’t know everything yet. It’s like peeling open an onion — the depths of the Wells Fargo corruption and its abuse of its customers and front-line workers.”

The proposed settlement is the result of negotiations between Wells Fargo and attorneys at Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback, who represent a handful of bank customers from across the country.

The firm filed a lawsuit two years ago that alleged bank workers, driven by onerous sales goals, opened accounts for customers without authorization — precisely the kind of conduct that the Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 and to which Wells Fargo since has admitted.

If approved, the settlement negotiated by attorneys in that case would apply to Wells Fargo customers nationwide, likely putting an end to nearly a dozen other class-action suits.

The settlement calls for making different kinds of payments to customers depending on how they were affected by the unauthorized accounts.

Customers who paid fees related to the accounts would get refunds, but only if they haven’t received refunds. Customers who say their credit was damaged by unauthorized accounts — either by unwanted credit inquiries or by debts caused by hidden fees — would be paid back for added costs, a process that will involve checking customer credit scores.

Customers will have to show that their credit was harmed and that they took out a loan at a higher interest rate to be eligible for repayment of the extra costs.