There are about half a million people in the United States with Armenian surnames. Managers at Citigroup apparently decided that all of them are criminals and went to great lengths to deny them credit cards.
That accusation is the basis of a $25 million penalty just imposed on Citi by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency alleges that supervisors at the bank ordered employees to discriminate against credit applicants deemed to be of Armenian origin based on the spelling of their family name—especially those living in and around Glendale, California, home to the country’s largest concentration of Armenian-Americans. To hide the blacklisting, applicants were given bogus reasons when their applications were denied.
Individual Armenian-Americans have been involved in organized crime. Earlier this year, a reputed Armenian mafia figure in the Los Angeles area was sentenced to 40 years in prison in connection with a scheme to fraudulently claim more than $1 billion in refundable renewable fuel tax credits.
Yet the existence of mobsters who belong to a particular ethnic group is hardly a justifiable basis for discriminating against everyone who shares that national origin. Citi’s alleged practices constituted a textbook violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
The CFPB enforcement action is a reminder that not all corporate discriminatory practices involve hiring, pay levels, promotion and other conditions of employment. Companies can also discriminate against customers based on race, gender, national origin, etc. In Violation Tracker we document more than 500 such cases dating back to 2000.
Many of these involve financial institutions accused of unfair treatment of African-American and Latino borrowers. Some of these are holdovers of the longstanding practice of redlining, in which credit is denied to those living in communities with demographic characteristics banks regard as undesirable. Earlier this year, Park National Bank paid $9 million to settle Justice Department allegations it redlined parts of Columbus, Ohio.
There have also been some cases involving other minorities. In 2016 Toyota Motor Credit was fined $21.9 million by CFPB for charging higher interest rates to Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers (as well as African-Americans) on automobile loans.
The cases I found that were closest to Citi matter were actions involving discrimination against Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11. The most relevant was a 2006 settlement reached by the Massachusetts Attorney General and Bank of America to resolve allegations that Fleet Bank, which BofA acquired in 2004, had improperly closed the accounts of customers with Arabic names, supposedly to guard against the channeling of funds to terrorist groups.
It is ironic to see the likes BofA and Citi portraying themselves as so concerned about potential bad actors that they stereotype entire ethnic groups. If any group deserves to be so stereotyped it is the big banks themselves.
BofA is by far the most penalized company in the United States, with over $87 billion in cumulative fines and settlements since 2000. Citi ranks sixth with nearly $27 billion in penalties. They need to clean up their own houses rather than making assumptions about the behavior of others.