Personal Finance

Despite promises, Beam depositors still can’t get access to their money. Now the lawsuits have begun

Key Points
  • Former vendors for Beam Financial, who say they are being unfairly blamed for customers being locked out of their accounts, have taken the company to court.
  • Beam offered above-market interest rates on FDIC-insured savings. But for months, some customers say they have been unable to access their money.
  • CNBC has learned that Beam owes $182,000 in taxes to Delaware, where it is incorporated, and that its corporate status has been revoked in Delaware and California, though the company says it is “operational.”
Beam aimed to let users earn higher interest rates on their money by engaging with its mobile savings app.

Thousands of customers of the savings app Beam, who have been unable to access their funds for months, remain locked out of their accounts despite the company's promise that all transactions would be processed by Oct. 30.

That's according to a lawsuit filed in an Ohio court by three Beam vendors who say they are being wrongly blamed for the delays.

The suit asks the court to order Beam's cooperation in getting customers' money back. On its web site, Beam claims to have nearly 187,000 subscribers, though a source close to the company has said the number of actual accounts may be closer to 30,000. According to the lawsuit, their deposits total more than $2.4 million.

CNBC has also learned that Beam, based in San Francisco, has lost its rights to do business in California after failing to file any tax returns, according to a spokesperson for the state's Franchise Tax Board.

Beam promised higher interest rates. Now some customers say they can't get their money out

In Delaware, where Beam is incorporated, the company owes more than $182,000 in back taxes and has not yet filed its 2019 annual report, according to the Delaware Division of Corporations.

Beam's CEO, 37-year-old Yinan "Aaron" Du, declined to be interviewed.

A company spokeswoman said in a statement that it is difficult to give an exact date when customers will receive their funds, and said the company is working with its vendors.

"We have faith that funds should be released any day now," the statement said.

The statement also said that Beam is operational despite the designation by the state taxing authorities, and that the company will be in contact with the Secretary of State's office to understand why its information has not been updated.

"Designed for the 99%"

Beam, which launched last year, offered to pay interest as high as 7% on funds deposited through the app, which it said was the "first mobile high-interest bank account designed for the 99%."

CNBC reported last month that customers began having difficulty accessing their funds earlier this year. Several said their withdrawal requests — which Beam's web site promises to process in three to five business days — have gone unheeded for months.

Beam has blamed the delays on its vendors, including Dwolla, a Des Moines, Iowa-based transaction processing firm and Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington National Bank, which serves as custodian for Beam's customer funds. Beam itself is not a bank. It describes itself as a "technology service provider."

Beam says it has "gone out of its way" to try to process their requests, in an email sent to customers on Monday. The company blamed Dwolla and Huntington for failing to act. In a previous email on Oct, 27, and in a statement the same day to CNBC, Beam claimed that Dwolla froze certain accounts after discovering that customers were committing unspecified fraud.

In its most recent statement to CNBC, Beam said it does not hold the funds in question.

"We have been working with Dwolla and Huntington, the third-party providers, and are progressing, though the speed of progress largely rests with them now. We gave them all the information necessary on Nov. 5," the statement said.

A lawsuit filed early last week against Beam in a Columbus, Ohio court by Dwolla, Huntington, and a third vendor, New York-based Stable Custody Group, said Beam's statements to its customers and to CNBC "were not accurate."

The suit says that despite Beam's claims, Dwolla never placed a hold on any Beam customer funds. In fact, Dwolla never held any customer funds in the first place.

"Any delays in customers receiving their funds was solely due to Beam's delays," the suit says.

The suit says that despite Beam's claim that the company is "working 24/7" to solve the problems, it has yet to provide any instructions to the vendors for the return of customers' funds. The suit said that only Beam has the information about its customers identities and their deposits that would be necessary to return the funds. It asks the court to order Beam to work with the vendors to return the customers' funds, and for a judgment declaring that the vendors acted properly.

"Beam strongly disagrees with several of the allegations stated in the complaint," the spokeswoman said in her statement. "The complaint by definition cannot be taken as true, because it is filed by them, so it's one-sided in nature."

Chain reaction

Beam's business model uses what is known as a "sweep account."

When customers deposit funds through the app, Dwolla moves the money through Huntington National Bank, and into a so-called demand deposit marketplace operated by Stable Custody Group, a unit of New York-based R&T. The funds are then swept into a network of banks that pay interest on the deposits, which Beam can pass back to the customers. When customers seek to withdraw their funds, the process theoretically works in reverse.

Under the arrangement, the customers' funds are FDIC-insured. But because Beam is not a bank, the insurance only comes into play if one of the banks in the chain fails. It does not apply if Beam fails.

All three of the vendors said they terminated their relationships with Beam when the problems arose in recent months, but they stand ready to help get money back to Beam's customers.

Stable terminated Beam's participation in the demand deposit marketplace on Oct. 30 and instructed its network of banks to return the Beam funds to the custody account at Huntington, according to the lawsuit.

"However, Beam has not requested the return of any of these funds to its customers, nor has Beam issued any instructions to Dwolla to enable the return of these funds to Beam's customers," the suit said.

Huntington "has acted promptly on its standing instructions from beam to transfer funds returned to the Custody Account from the Receiving Banks to the Beam Account, and thus has not caused any delays in the ability of Beam to return those funds to its customers," according to the suit.

The suit says that all $2.4 million of the customer deposits is now in the custody account at Huntington National Bank, but "HNB does not know, and has no way to know, the identity of the Beam customers to whom these funds belong or the amount of these funds owed to each Beam customer."

"It will be soon"

It is unclear where the arrangements between Beam and its vendors broke down, but customers seeking to withdraw money describe a frustrating array of automated emails and text messages that offer little information and none of their money.

Florida retiree Glenn Irby, who invested $8,000 with Beam beginning in August, said every withdrawal request gets the same response:

"It will be soon," he said. But the money never comes.

"I am retired," he said. "Being on a fixed income, it's not easy."

Steve Wolf opened an account with Beam to set aside money for emergencies. "Now I'm having to fight and spend hours of time to get it back," he said.

Steve Wolf, who owns a marketing firm outside San Diego, has been trying since September to withdraw the $15,000 he deposited with Beam. Wolf tells CNBC he has now hired an attorney to pursue possible legal action against the company for the "economic injury" he has suffered in a savings instrument that was marketed as safe.

"That's not money I lost in the stock market," Wolf said. "That's money that I already made, paid taxes on, was sitting in a savings account and was saving for a rainy day."

The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation earlier this year into possible "deceptive practices" at Beam, CNBC previously reported. An agency spokesman declined to comment on the status of the investigation. Dozens of customers have filed complaints, nearly all of them involving their inability to access their funds, according to data obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

With reporting by CNBC's Scott Zamost, Jennifer Schlesinger and Lorie Konish

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