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Can a bank issue a credit card without my permission?

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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, 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. Fifth Third Bank has also been implicated in such issues.

The most recent scandal in this regard relates to U.S. Bank. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has fined the bank $37.5 million for opening various accounts without consumers’ permission.

The bank also has to return all the fees it charged customers on these accounts, and make good any other costs to them. Besides credit card accounts, it seems the bank also opened checking and savings accounts, as well as lines of credit, without customers’ permission.

This came about as U.S. Bank employees, much like Wells Fargo employees before them, were under pressure to meet sales targets. This motivated U.S. Bank employees to access customers’ credit reports and other sensitive personal information, without permission, and open these accounts. This practice had been going on for more than a decade, according to the CFPB.

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, no, 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.

Credit score fallouts

Another fallout from the 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 take 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 put in a complaint with the CFPB about the unsolicited card you got.

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 them 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 pthangavelu@redventures.com with your credit card-related questions.

Written by
Poonkulali Thangavelu
Senior Reporter
Poonkulali Thangavelu is a senior writer and columnist at CreditCards.com and Bankrate, addressing debt and credit card-related legal and regulatory issues.
Edited by
Senior Editor