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Citibank agreed Tuesday to repay $14 million taken from 53,000 customer credit accounts, plus interest and penalties, after after a three-year investigation by the California Attorney General's office revealed the bank's policy of clearing positive balances off customer credit accounts.

Citibank used a computerized process between 1992 and 2003, which automatically and immediately erased positive balances from credit-card accounts. The Attorney General's office quotes a bank executive saying, "Stealing from our customers is a business decision, not a legal decision."

Underscoring the intentional nature of the bank's actions, the Attorney General said an insider at Citibank reported the credit sweeps to an internal audit team in 2001, and was first ignored and then fired.

The investigation took three years to complete because the state investigators had to overcome legal trench warfare from Citibank which resisted subpoenas from the state to third parties who had information about the theft, said a spokesman for the Attorney General.

"The company knowingly stole from its customers, mostly poor people and the recently deceased when it... implemented the sweeps," said California Attorney General Jerry Brown Jr.

Positive balances happen when a customer over-pays, or when a customer returns a purchase for credit. A spokesman for Brown's office, Dana Simas, said the poor and the dead tend to be less financially organized, which accounts for their increased exposure to Citibank's credit sweeps.

$1.6 million was swiped from Californians alone.

Citibank was represented in the matter by Julia Strickland and Julie Nelson with the Stroock law firm.

The settlement calls on Citibank to refund the victims for the amount stolen, along with a 10% interest. It also imposes a $3.5 million fine to be paid to California, and prevents Citibank from re-initiating the credit sweeps.

Once Citibank has complied, an independent auditor will ensure that Citibank has fulfilled its requirements.

The state's investigation was led by Frederick Acker.

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