Can a bank open a credit card account for you if you haven’t expressly applied for one? You may have heard of Wells Fargo’s ill-considered criminal acts several years ago concerning opening up fake accounts for customers in order to reach sales targets.

While that matter was settled, it seems the question of whether a bank can open a credit card account without a customer’s consent is still not settled, at least in the banking industry.

The most recent scandal in this regard relates to Bank of America. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has penalized the bank for illegally opening credit card accounts and accessing customers’ credit reports without their permission to open these accounts. The CFPB also charges the bank with cheating customers out of credit card rewards and points that it promised them upon signing up for a card account, in a bid to be competitive. The consumer protection agency’s action against the bank is also for imposing fees multiple times on customers whose transactions were declined due to inadequate funds in their bank accounts.

Bank of America is on the hook to refund $100 million to customers harmed by its actions and will also pay $150 million in total penalties to the CFPB and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

It seems BoA employees resorted to opening unauthorized credit card accounts, going back to at least 2012, in a bid to reach sales targets. In prior cases, CFPB has also taken action against U.S. Bank and Fifth Third Bank for the offense of opening unauthorized credit card accounts. And in those cases, too, it seems bank employees were motivated by sales targets and incentives.

The CFPB is looking to put an end to such practices across the banking industry, in what appears to be a systemic issue.

Banks need your permission to open a credit card account

The Truth in Lending Act says banks cannot issue you a credit card unless it is in response to a request or application you make, in writing or orally, to the issuer. So, banks can’t just issue you a card you did not apply for out of the blue.

However, what they can do is send you a renewal card or a substitute card for a card you’ve already accepted. You will likely receive a new card when, for instance, your old card expires. In these cases, make sure to check that the terms and conditions of the new card work for you, since the bank may have made changes to them. If you are not on board with the changes, you don’t need to accept the new card.

If you do get a card you didn’t apply for, and you don’t plan on holding on to the account, be careful not to use it. Using it implies you’ve accepted the card, which means you will be held responsible for any activity on it.

You should also be careful when a store employee asks for your information, under the pretext of making you eligible for rewards. They could use that information to sneakily open a card account you didn’t expressly ask for.

Fair Credit Reporting Act violations

When a bank obtains your credit report without your permission to open an unauthorized card account, it’s also a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Another fallout from a bank’s actions of opening a credit card account is that there might be repercussions on your credit score. A lender will make a “hard inquiry” about your credit score to ensure that you are creditworthy.

If there are a number of such inquiries within a short window of time, the credit score algorithm could take it to mean you are actively looking for new credit, which could bump down your score.

What you should do

If you receive a card you didn’t apply for, contact the bank, explain you didn’t apply for the card and ask for the account to be closed. Also ask the bank to remove the account from your credit history. If you want to sound an alarm, you should also file a complaint with the CFPB about the unsolicited card.

Getting a card you didn’t apply for could also be an indication of fraud. Someone could have accessed your personal information and opened up an account in your name. You should get a copy of your credit report to investigate the matter further to see if you need to take any other follow-up action.

The bottom line

A bank cannot create a credit card account for you without your express permission. In case you get a card you did not sign up for, you should contact the issuer and ask it to close the account. Don’t use the card if you don’t want to be held responsible for it.

You should also put in a complaint about the issuer with the CFPB if you want to alert the authorities. If you get a card you didn’t apply for, it could also be a sign of fraud that you should look into further.

Contact me at with your credit card-related questions.