2016 In Review: Wells Fargo, PG&E, Exploding Phones Draw Ire Of Consumers

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A banking scandal, exploding phones and the ongoing roller coaster of PG&E rate changes were among the top stories raising the ire of consumers this years.

Perhaps the worst was the Wells Fargo bank scandal in which employees secretly opened millions of bogus credit and bank accounts to meet sales targets, and then funded many of those accounts with customers’ money. John Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s chief executive officer, became a poster child for corporate greed as he was harshly grilled by both Republicans and Democrats during testimony before congressional committees in Washington, D.C.

The San Francisco-based banking giant had retained a sterling reputation despite the black marks that tarnished the financial services industry after the financial crisis and the housing bubble of 2008 that led to the Great Recession. Now that reputation is, at best, sullied. At worst, it’s in tatters.

Consumers suffered defeats, but also a victory in connection with PG&E. In March, gas bills jumped as a result of prior regulatory decisions, and consumers learned future bills were likely to increase even more. Then in June, a PUC decision slapped consumers with double-digit increases in their monthly gas bills.

In August, PG&E was convicted by a federal jury on six criminal charges stemming from the company’s actions before and after the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and leveled a residential neighborhood. While the financial punishment was relatively small, it was nevertheless seen as a symbolic victory, and it laid the foundation for reforms at both the utility and the PUC, the agency responsible for PG&E’s oversight.

Meanwhile, in what was a product disaster for the ages, Samsung toppled into hot water with its its Galaxy Note 7, an Android smartphone whose battery overheated at times, triggering fires, even explosions. The company, its ill-fated device and consumers all suffered through recalls and production delays until the gadget was eventually scrapped altogether.

However, there was at least one more piece of good news: Thanks to challenges by Consumer Watchdog, Californians won a series of victories amounting to $250 million in savings for home and auto insurance rate savings and refunds.

QUOTE: “The Wells Fargo scandal amounted to fraud and extortion. What Wells Fargo did was outrageous.” — Liza Tucker, Consumer Watchdog



Jan. 1: Bay Area gasoline prices start out the year at an average of $2.78 a gallon for regular.

Feb. 20: Bay Area gasoline prices reach their lows of the year, falling to $2.35 a gallon.

March 1: Electricity bills for PG&E customers rise an average of $2.29 a month.

June 21: PG&E proposes a shutdown of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a decision that will lead to the end of the nuclear power era in California. The utility says the closure won’t raise electricity bills for residential consumers over the long term.

June 23: State regulators approve increases in PG&E monthly gas bills, part of a series of increases that began Aug. 1 and is scheduled to end in 2018. Once all the rate hikes are complete, monthly bills will have increased 11.6 percent, or $5.90 a month, compared with the levels at the end of 2015.

July 18: Bay Area gasoline prices reach their highs of the year, roughly $2.95 a gallon.

Aug. 9: A jury convicts PG&E on six criminal charges that the utility committed illegal actions related to its gas pipeline system before the San Bruno explosion and then obstructed the federal investigation of the deadly blast.

Aug. 31: Shipments of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 are delayed after the consumer electronics giant begins receiving reports that the battery in the phone is exploding.

Sept. 8: Wells Fargo is hit with $185 million in fines for a years-long practice in which employees opened an estimated 2 million bogus bank and credit accounts and funded those accounts with customers’ money without permission.

Sept. 12: The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is officially recalled in the U.S.

Sept. 20: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf is grilled by the Senate Banking Committee over the bank account scandal. Days later, Stumpf is accused of running a “criminal enterprise” at the bank by members of the House Financial Services Committee.

Oct. 11: Samsung officially ceases production of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Oct. 12: John Stumpf retires as Wells Fargo’s CEO, amid mounting criticism of his leadership of the bank and oversight of a sales culture that hurt consumers.

Oct. 14: The Federal Aviation Administration bans all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones from being taken on flights, even if the devices are powered off.

Oct. 19: The State Attorney General’s Office discloses it has launched a criminal investigation into Wells Fargo’s consumer and sales practices linked to the bogus bank accounts.

Oct. 26: Despite earlier assurances that consumers would benefit long-term from the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant shutdown, PG&E confirms that customers face a short-term 1.6 percent increase in electricity bills.

Nov. 15: Consumer Watchdog announces that it has won a total of $250 million in lower rates or refunds for auto and homeowners insurance through a series of challenges to rate cases in California.


George Avalos

George Avalos is a business reporter for the Bay Area News Group.

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