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A rape victim entered witness protection. Wells Fargo may have blown her cover, suit says

Commuters walk by a Wells Fargo automated teller machine location at New York’s Penn Station in this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo.
Commuters walk by a Wells Fargo automated teller machine location at New York’s Penn Station in this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo. AP

A young rape victim and her mother were ready to start a new life in November 2016.

As a part of Minnesota’s victim and witness protection program, the 20-year-old victim and her mother moved 30 miles away from their old home. At the new location, the family hoped to be safe from the man who pleaded guilty to sexual assaulting the young woman — and who had threatened the victim and her mother to prevent them from testifying against him, according to court filings.

But only days after moving into their new, secret home in Mankato, Minnesota, the women's cover was nearly blown, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Blue Earth County District Court: A mailing arrived from Wells Fargo, their mortgage lender, and it included the mother’s real name — risking their lives, exposing their identities and violating the rules of the Safe at Home program, which the lender had already been made aware of, the lawsuit said.

“The perpetrator was recently sentenced after pleading guilty,” said Randy Knutson, the family’s attorney. But “at sentencing, he was let out for time served of 3 months. So he is out and about, and still not happy with my clients.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Wells Fargo’s alleged breach of privacy exposed the family’s real identities, according to the lawsuit: “It just made our fear escalate higher and higher,” the daughter said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The lawsuit alleges Wells Fargo sold the family’s name and address to outside vendors as well, which Knutson said is worrisome because once vendors have it, “the name and address can often be located online.”

“Basically, if vendors have it, everyone may be able to access it,” Knutson said. “If the address is accessible online through any service like Spokeo, then the perpetrator can locate them.”

The family had finalized the home purchase on Nov. 28, 2016, and had hand-delivered Safe at Home program paperwork to the Wells Fargo branch earlier that month to make sure their identities and location would remain secret, the lawsuit said.

The first mailing identifying them — a mortgage statement from Wells Fargo — arrived Dec. 3, according to the lawsuit. That same day, they went to Wells Fargo to again give the bank a copy of the Safe at Home “Notice to Private Entities” form, hoping to fix the breach. But on Dec. 22, another letter came in the mail, again from Wells Fargo and addressed to the mother, the lawsuit said.

They returned to Wells Fargo in early January to speak with the mortgage officer and make sure future mailings went to the secure mailing address in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, where any mail was supposed to be sent all along, the lawsuit said.

As January progressed, though, the women started getting junk mail — and it was the only mail they were receiving beyond the Wells Fargo mail, according to the lawsuit. One piece said “Welcome to the New Home Owner,” which suggested to the women that Wells Fargo had sold their information to other vendors, the lawsuit said.

The women complained to the Safe at Home program and to Wells Fargo in January and February, the lawsuit said. In March, Wells Fargo got back to the women about the privacy breach — by again sending a correspondence directly to their home address on March 4, instead of using the safe address the lender was supposed to use, the lawsuit said.

Wells Fargo mailed more updates on the breach to the theoretically secret address on March 17 and March 31, the lawsuit said. In May, the bank called the women to admit “they did in fact commit a breach in security,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, negligence, breach of privacy, negligent infliction of emotional distress and unjust enrichment. The women are seeking more than $50,000 in damages, the lawsuit said.

“We are aware of the complaint and cannot comment further at this time,” Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot told the Star-Tribune.

Knutson noted that Wells Fargo has been trying to improve its public image after a series of high-profile scandals around the country. To that end, the company has launched an ad campaign aimed at “earning back our trust,” Knutson noted.

“That has not been our experience in working with Wells Fargo so far on this situation,” Knutson said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan in October in the aftermath of the bank’s massive sales scandal.

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