By Kevin P. O’Connor | Herald News Staff Reporter | April 6, 2017
FREETOWN — Every time Andy Wilkinson pulls into his driveway, he sees red.
It is the color of his Chevrolet Impala, but that is just the spark.
Seeing the car reminds him of how he got hooked and reeled in by an unscrupulous car dealer and his own financial innocence. It also makes him think of how Santander Bank made matters worse for him.
Plus, even though the car barely runs any more, it is still leaving tire tracks all over his credit.
Wilkinson is one of 2,000 car buyers in Massachusetts who stands to receive proceeds from Santander Bank in its $22 million settlement with the state over allegations of unfair lending. In Southeastern Massachusetts, the area including Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford, more than 150 people are involved in the settlement, officials say.
“We found that Santander, a leading player in the business of packaging and reselling subprime auto loans, funded unfair and unaffordable auto loans for more than 2,000 Massachusetts residents,” Attorney General Maura Healey said.
The attorney general’s investigation alleged Santander funded loans it knew would not be repaid or that were based on incorrect or inflated incomes.
The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, also alleged Santander’s internal auditors identified dealers who were submitting fraudulent loan applications but the bank continued doing business with those dealers.
For Wilkinson, problems began five years ago when he bought his new used car. He had been accepted as a medic into an Army unit that was shipping out to Iraq. He had to report to North Carolina.
“I had just finished paying off the loan on a Jeep Grand Cherokee,” he said. “I realized the Jeep would not be reliable enough to make the trip to North Carolina.”
So he went car shopping and found the Impala. He sat with the dealer and was told that, by trading in the Jeep, he would end up with a payment of $292 a month.
“Really, I fault myself,” Wilkinson said. “I had no idea what the interest rate was. Nothing. I just knew that $292 was a low monthly payment.”
It still is, five years later. He is paying and he was told the principal is $10,000 – more than what he borrowed.
“It is a never ending ordeal,” he said. “Every payment I make barely touches the principal.”
After his return from Iraq, Wilkinson was out of work for four months to repair a knee that was injured during his deployment. He asked for and says he was promised a deferment on payment from Santander. But when he went to resume payment, he learned the loan had been marked in default. He had to pay four months at once to avoid a repossession. His credit was trashed, he said.
He has repaired his credit. He and his wife bought a house, where they live with their two children. Wilkinson also bought a new Jeep to replace the Chevrolet, which stalls every 200 yards. He hopes to get the Chevrolet fixed so he can sell it and get it out of his life.
Wilkinson has no idea how much he will receive in the settlement or when he will get the money. A spokeswoman for Healey’s office said their lawyers are still processing the settlement money and hiring a trustee to distribute the cash.
It could take months.
Santander made the settlement without admitting fault.
A statement by the bank read: “In the last 18 months, we have established an Office of Consumer Practices to serve as an internal voice of the consumer and to examine, track and improve the customer experience.”
The bank has also stepped up training to spot and deal with dealer misconduct, the statement read.
Not enough, Wilkinson said.
“I feel like Santander got off easy,” he said. “The whole point of the lawsuit was to force Santander to accept its mistake.
“But I just want to put this behind me.”
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