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Wells Fargo & Co., reeling from weeks of pummeling over fraudulent customer accounts, was sanctioned by the Justice Department over improperly repossessing cars owned by members of the military.

Federal authorities are punishing the San Francisco-based lender for as many as 413 alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, according to a statement Thursday from the Justice Department, which said the bank agreed to pay more than $4 million to compensate borrowers involved in unlawful repossessions spread over seven years. The bank’s regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, also fined the company $20 million for a decade of transgressions, the agency said in a statement.

“Wells Fargo Bank unlawfully repossessed hundreds of servicemembers’ cars without the proper process, and the bank will now rightfully pay for its violations,” Bill Baer, the Justice Department’s No. 3 official, said in a statement. The department “is committed to protecting our country’s servicemembers as they continue to fight for our freedom.”

The enforcement actions against the bank follow a $185 million settlement over more than two million unauthorized accounts that may have been opened to meet sales goals. The matter has sparked weeks of sharp criticism, congressional hearings and the forfeit of tens of millions in bonuses for top executives.

Wells Fargo’s stock declined 1.5 percent to close at $44.37 after Bloomberg News reported on the car-seizure sanctions Thursday afternoon — at the same time that Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf answered questions in a House hearing on the accounts scandal.

Ford Escape

Wells Fargo, which doesn’t admit or deny the allegations, is accused of engaging in “a pattern of unlawful repossessions” from 2008 to 2015 in the DOJ settlement, which still needs approval in federal court in Los Angeles. In most cases, firms must obtain court orders before seizing vehicles from soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are delinquent on their loans. The investigation started when the bank took back a Ford Escape from a soldier getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan.

The Justice Department got a complaint that Wells Fargo grabbed the Ford from an Army National Guard soldier in North Carolina, according to court records and the department’s statement. The bank shed the vehicle in an auction before demanding $10,000 in an unpaid balance from the soldier — a situation that raised a red flag for a military lawyer helping with his debt counseling.

The OCC said the duration and frequency of violations contributed to its action, which also requires the bank to repair deficiencies in its compliance with the servicemembers law.

“In those instances where some servicemembers did not receive the appropriate benefits and protections, we did not live up to our commitment and we apologize,” Catherine Pulley, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said in an e-mailed statement. She said the company has been notifying and compensating customers and has “enhanced our efforts to identify eligible service members.”

Military Bases

Shielding soldiers from financial stress has been a priority for lawmakers, and the Justice Department has recently stepped up enforcement actions against banks for taking assets illegally. Banco Santander SA’s U.S. unit agreed to pay $9 million last year over allegations that it improperly confiscated more than 1,000 vehicles from military members, the largest settlement ever obtained in a case involving repossessions of automobiles with delinquent loans.

Wells Fargo — which was the world’s most valuable bank before the account scandal hurt its stock price — has branches on eight U.S. military bases, including Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Dix in New Jersey and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. On its website, the bank says it has “a history of making banking easier for our servicemen and servicewomen.”

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