The horror . We would like to locate this lady. We have one Ricebox left at Head Office and it has her name on it. https://t.co/rJ9qWFSJpX
But Ms. Amrich and her landlord, Ines Prelas, said they had heard nothing from the agency before she was removed from the plane.
The entire episode unfolded over a few hours on Jan. 16, after Ms. Amrich learned that her mother, Dixie J. Hanson, had been hospitalized. She could not afford a plane ticket, so Ms. Prelas bought one for her, using Traveler Help Desk because it was the cheapest option she could find. At that point, there was no indication that Ms. Amrich’s mother was dying, so she chose a flight for the next day.
But soon after, Ms. Amrich learned that her mother was in heart failure and was not expected to survive the night. It was around 2:30 p.m., and Ms. Prelas immediately called United and had Ms. Amrich switched onto Flight UA5712, leaving Colorado Springs at 5:15 p.m. That flight would go to Denver, where Ms. Amrich would make a connection to Minneapolis. Ms. Prelas showed The New York Times confirmation emails and a photo of Ms. Amrich’s boarding pass.
She rushed Ms. Amrich to the airport, about an hour’s drive from Pueblo. Ms. Amrich checked in: no problem. Her boarding pass was scanned at the gate: no problem. She took her seat. She buckled her seatbelt.
Minutes later, the gate agent came on board to remove her.
When Ms. Amrich pleaded, saying her mother was dying, the agent responded that her ticket had been refunded and that “nobody flies for free.”
Back in the airport, Ms. Amrich called Ms. Prelas, sobbing. Ms. Prelas got on the phone with the gate agent and offered to pay for another ticket.
“I said: ‘Take my credit card. We’ll straighten this out later, but get her on that plane,’” Ms. Prelas said. The agent, she said, responded that Ms. Amrich could not get back on the plane.
Ms. Prelas said she was given no explanation at the time, but United told The Times that the plane had already left by the time Ms. Prelas made that offer.
And so Ms. Amrich drove.
“I drove 1,000 miles, and she was gone before I got here,” she said. “I never stopped to rest. I went straight through. And she was gone.”
Ms. Gallant, the Traveler Help Desk supervisor, said that when Ms. Prelas contacted United to change Ms. Amrich’s flight, all Traveler Help Desk saw was that the reservation had been modified.
“We had no way of knowing this was a change by Ms. Amrich directly with the carrier,” she said in an email, adding that if the change had been unauthorized and the agency had not canceled the ticket, Ms. Amrich would have lost her money. “We voided the ticket to protect Ms. Amrich.”
“I am just so sorry for Ms. Amrich’s loss,” Ms. Gallant wrote. “It is tragic. I understand it was unfortunate the ticket ended up voided. Had she contacted us directly to make the change, this all would have been avoided.”
Ms. Prelas said that when she made the call, she did not have Traveler Help Desk’s number readily available and thought that contacting United directly would be the quickest way to make such an urgent change. She emphasized that she told the United representative she had booked the ticket through an online agency and that the representative had assured her there was no problem.
As Ms. Amrich drove across the Great Plains, Ms. Prelas made call after call, trying to find out what had happened. The next day, she said, a woman called her back from United’s Chicago headquarters. She wanted Ms. Amrich’s address so United could send flowers.
“What are the flowers going to do? You took away from her that she might have been able to see her mother alive,” Ms. Prelas said. “If I’d have been at that gate, I would have done everything in my power to get her back on that plane.”
Ms. Broderick and two of her colleagues, Darron Smith and Thomas Schreck, filed a wrongful termination suit against Prudential on Tuesday. They say they were fired in November for trying to escalate attention internally to their discoveries about conduct at Wells Fargo. Prudential said on Friday that the three were fired for “appropriate and legitimate reasons” that had nothing to do with Wells Fargo.
Three managers in Prudential’s corporate investigation division found signs that Wells Fargo had signed up customers for insurance without the customers’ knowledge.
A Prudential spokesman, Scot Hoffman, says the company continues to investigate the policies sold through Wells Fargo. Once it is finished, Prudential anticipates “reviewing this matter with our regulators,” he said.
Since bankers are not licensed to sell insurance, Wells Fargo employees were encouraged, without discussing specific terms, to steer customers to either a self-service kiosk in bank branches or a website on which they could sign up for MyTerm, a policy that does not require applicants to take a medical exam. Bankers who sold the product got credit toward their steep quarterly sales quotas.
Some Wells Fargo bankers appear to have signed people up for MyTerm without telling them, according to the three whistle-blowers from Prudential. In some cases, bankers opened MyTerm policies, closed them after a month or two and then promptly reopened them to bolster their sales numbers, the evidence in the lawsuit suggests.
Wells Fargo said in a statement on Friday that it was investigating any alleged improprieties that were brought to its attention.
“As we have consistently reinforced, if we identify any instances where a customer received a product they didn’t ask for, we will make it right,” said Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.
The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey state court, provides elaborate details of how the same issues that have disgraced Wells Fargo — which forced the bank to pay $185 million in fines, to account for its actions in Congress, to replace its chief executive and to apologize profusely to customers — are now showing up at Prudential in the accounts that Wells Fargo handled.
Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Under intense pressure to meet sales goals, which have since been eliminated, thousands of Wells Fargo’s workers used customers’ personal information to create sham accounts in the customers’ names; some incurred fees on those unwanted accounts, which included checking accounts and credit cards. More than 5,000 employees have been fired, and an internal investigation is underway.
The three people who filed the wrongful termination suit were part of an investigations unit at Prudential that was asked to comb for irregularities in the 15,000 MyTerm accounts that were sold through Wells Fargo.
Those in the unit found that some customers who signed up for MyTerm listed addresses like “Wells Fargo Drive” on their applications, according to the complaint. Some of the policy applications listed suspicious email addresses for customers, and the name listed on a policy sometimes did not match the name in the customer’s email address — “for example, where the MyTerm policy holder was Jason Smith, the email address might be for email@example.com,” the complaint said.
Additionally, the lawsuit said, “Cellphone numbers were listed as emails, such as firstname.lastname@example.org, which was very similar to how fraudulent bank accounts were opened at Wells Fargo Bank.”
The MyTerm policies were “sold predominantly to individuals with Hispanic-sounding last names concentrated in Southern California, southern Texas, southern Arizona and southern Florida,” the lawsuit states. Those four states also accounted for the bulk of the sham accounts created by Wells Fargo’s employees, according to the bank’s disclosures.
“When we started peeling back the onion, everywhere we looked, it stunk,” said Mr. Smith, a plaintiff, who earlier this year was a featured speaker at a conference focusing on insurance fraud.
Missteps and Scandal
From sham accounts to releasing client data, Wells Fargo has drawn negative attention several times over the past year.
An unusually high rate of the Prudential policies that Wells Fargo sold in its first year had lapsed — 70 percent — and many were dropped after only one or two months. In some cases, customers never made a single premium payment.
There was also a suspicious pattern of MyTerm policies being closed and reopened, suggesting the unseen hand of a banker trying to buoy sales numbers. For example, “18 clients who purchased the MyTerm policies allowed them to lapse, or they were canceled and then repurchased them two more times,” the lawsuit states.
A former Wells Fargo employee said the bank made no secret that it wanted employees to push various insurance products.
“We were like insurance salespeople without the license,” said Michael Barborek, a former Wells Fargo banker in Orange, Tex. “They wanted us to offer it to everybody who came in.”
To meet their sales goals, some bankers in his branch would sometimes buy cheap policies for their friends and relatives, pay the first month’s premium and then cancel, according to Mr. Barborek — a blatant violation of regulatory rules and Wells Fargo’s own policies. Managers, facing their own pressure to make numbers, looked the other way, he said.
The life insurance product is quick and easy to buy: A customer can complete the application in 15 minutes by answering a few basic medical questions online, without ever speaking to a licensed insurance sales agent. Prudential then, with the permission of the applicant, checks databases, such as pharmaceutical records, to assess the health of an applicant before deciding to issue a policy. The average annual premium is $288.71 for a policy sold through Wells Fargo, which continues to offer MyTerm.
Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
According to the Prudential employees’ lawsuit, one person who contacted Prudential appeared to have had funds removed from his Wells Fargo savings account by a bank employee to pay for a policy he said he had not authorized. And others who called Prudential were confused about how much they owed each month in premiums, and why.
As is not uncommon with whistle-blower cases, the three employees did not have entirely clean slates at Prudential. They said Prudential told them it was putting them on unpaid leave after another employee had turned over a series of text messages, most more than a year old, in which they were complaining about others within the corporate investigations division.
They contend that the text messages are being used as a pretext by the company to dismiss them for complaining about the handling of the MyTerm investigation.
Mr. Hoffman, the Prudential spokesman, said that the termination of the three employees was “entirely unrelated to Prudential’s business with Wells Fargo and Prudential’s decision to examine the sale of the MyTerm product.” He declined to elaborate on the reason for the firings, noting that Prudential does not comment on employment matters.
Mr. Hoffman said that Prudential began reviewing issues with MyTerm sales after complaints from customers in 2015, and expanded the review after news of the Wells Fargo settlement with regulators became public.
Before they were fired, Ms. Broderick said, she and her two colleagues ran into obstacles when they pressed others at the insurer, which is based in New Jersey, to investigate their findings more aggressively and to notify regulators. They were kicked out of Prudential’s office in Newark, N.J., and put on unpaid leave just days before Thanksgiving, she said.
“We were totally shocked,” Ms. Broderick said. “The game plan was to sweep this under the rug.”
In addition to the suit they filed in State Superior Court in New Jersey’s Essex County, the three intend to file a Dodd-Frank whistle-blower complaint next week with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said one of their lawyers, Christopher Chang, a former Manhattan prosecutor.