NEW YORK (AP) — Citigroup intentionally discriminated against Armenian Americans when they applied for credit cards, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Wednesday.
The bureau said some bank employees argued internally that Armenian Americans were more likely to commit fraud and referred to applicants as “bad guys” or as affiliated with organized crime.
The CFPB found that Citi employees were trained to avoid approving applications with last names ending in “yan” or “ian” — the most common suffix to Armenian last names — as well applications that originated in Glendale, California, where a significant portion of the country’s Armenian-American population lives.
As part of the order, Citi will pay $24.5 million in fines as well as $1.4 million in remedies to impacted customers.
The origins of the case come as a result of some organized crime syndicates operating in Southern California that involve Armenian Americans. The leaders of the Armenian crime rings have been charged with identity theft and other financial crimes, including stealing COVID-19 financial relief funds in recent years.
Citi, based in New York, said a few employees were attempting to stop potential fraud due to this “well-documented Armenian fraud ring operating in certain parts of California” that often involved individuals running up credit card debts, then leaving the country.
However, in the bureau’s order, these Citi employees used identifiable information that broadly discriminated against Armenian Americans in general.
“We sincerely apologize to any applicant who was evaluated unfairly by the small number of employees who circumvented our fraud detection protocols,” the bank said in a statement. “Following an internal investigation, we have taken appropriate actions with those directly involved in this matter and we promptly put in place measures to prevent any recurrence of such conduct.”
In its investigation, the bureau found that Citi employees were instructed to single out applications that had Armenian last names, but then to conceal the real reason why those applications were denied. These employees knew they were running afoul of bank laws that prohibit discrimination against national origin, and kept any decisions off recorded phone lines or writing it down.
“Citi stereotyped Armenians as prone to crime and fraud. In reality, Citi illegally fabricated documents to cover up its discrimination,” said Rohit Chopra, the director of the CFPB, in a statement.
CFPB officials said the case involves “hundreds of individuals” who were impacted by Citi’s discrimination, which is relatively small for a bank that has tens of millions of customers. However because the behavior was so egregious, the bureau’s fine against Citi is relatively high compared to the number of people impacted.
The case involves Citi’s significant co-brand credit card partnerships with Home Depot, Best Buy and others. It did not involve Citi’s own branded credit cards.
Under CEO Jane Fraser, Citi has been trying to overhaul its risk-management business across a firm that industry analysts still see as complicated and unwieldy, even 15 years after the financial crisis when Citi nearly failed. Fraser has spun off banking franchises in several countries, and has discontinued several lines of business.
But regulators continue to express concerns about how Citi manages its business. The bank has been fined or cited several times by the CFPB, as well as by the Federal Reserve, for unsound business practices.
“I am concerned about Citi’s longstanding problems when it comes to managing the many parts of its sprawling business,” Chopra said in a news conference.
This story removes a reference to Citi’s partnership with American Airlines. An earlier version incorrectly stated that partnership was part of the case.