RISK OF BANK PENALTIES SPARK LANGUAGE CERTIFICATION

GE Capital Bank, a division of General Electric, excluded thousands of Spanish-speaking credit card customers from a debt-reduction promotion they ran for two years, illustrating a pattern of discrimination resulting in the federal government’s largest credit-card­-discrimination settlement in history.

Over $169 million in fines were ordered to compensate over 638,000 Spanish-speaking consumers who were affected by the exclusion. In a release, CFPB Director, Richard Cordray stated the bureau, “will continue to take action against marketing tactics that trick consumers into buying credit card products they do not want or cannot use”. He added, “Consumers also deserve to be treated fairly no matter where they live or what language they speak.”

The bank ran two promotions from 2009 to 2012 that was aimed to assist cardholders with low credit scores in an effort to catch up on payments. In that time, the bank sent out offers to over 400,000 cardholders, choosing to not inform or include over 100,000 with mailing addresses in Puerto Rico or those who had accounts citing the preference to communicate in the Spanish language.

“The scope of the potential harm, as well as the blatant nature of the discrimination, is particularly troublesome,” Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said during a conference call with reporters.

“These consumers never knew they were missing out on anything and, thus, had no way of recognizing that they were even being discriminated against — which is often the challenge in confronting discrimination,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said during the call with reporters.

In the final settlement, the bank agreed to contact the credit bureaus to eliminate negative marks on the reports of affected borrowers. However, part of the settlement was that GE Bank would neither admit nor deny any wrongdoing.

The circumstances surrounding the GE settlement has left many in the financial market to take a closer look at their own practices to ensure they are not involuntarily violating any procedures that could be seen as deceptive to their non-English speaking customers. But for one major bank, the remedy to this potential dilemma was a language testing company based in White Plains, NY. The company, known simply as LTI, (Language Testing International), partnered with this bank to certify the professional language competence of its employees who interact with customers in various languages. “This partnership came as a result of GE’s discrimination settlement and their proactive steps and commitment to effectively communicate with their non-English speaking customers.

It may be too early to tell if language testing will become a trend in the banking world but it does seem to be a logical step for the financial market to take in reducing the risk of miscommunicating with its non-English speaking customers.

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