More Bank Fees -- and What You Can Do About Them

a Fistful of dollars - bank feeYou're not imagining it: Banks, especially big ones, have been overhauling their offerings and piling on the fees lately. And while some banks have started dishing out goodies like coffee and danish, don't be distracted by the tasty treats -- they're just there so you won't notice just how crazy this fee-creep has gotten lately.

As we reported recently, Bank of America will start rolling out a new account structure this month -- with some fees -- in three states, a pilot program that's set to go national later this year. Under BofA's new format, account holders will have the option of signing up for one of four accounts. The most basic is an electronic banking-only option that won't charge a fee -- unless you want to do something radical like talk to a human teller. In that case, you'll pay around $9 a month for the privilege. Other fees for the BofA accounts range from a low of $9 to as much as $25 for an account with all the bells and whistles.We'd be remiss, though, if we didn't point out that Bank of America is hardly alone when it comes to turning up the heat on customers by levying new fees. As this article points out, as of February 8, Chase will enroll new customers in a checking account that commands a hefty $12-per-month "maintenance fee." (Existing customers will be charged half that.) Not sure that's quite what the experts have in mind when they talk about "rewarding customer loyalty."

And while Citi's basic checking fee clocks in at $8, its monthly account charges can climb as high as $30 for some customers, an amount that's equivalent to a week's worth of groceries for many single people. Wells Fargo's monthly fees can climb just as high; its fees start at $5 a month. (Wachovia customers who have free checking accounts get to keep them that way -- for now.)

Banks claim they were forced to add these new fees by President Obama and Congress's new regulations, but that's hogwash, says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. What the new regulations did were to prohibit banks from making money off even sneakier fees, like socking you for incurring an overdraft via an overdraft "protection" program you'd never even signed up for, or jacking up your rate on a credit card for no other reason than ... well, because they felt like it.

"The way they made money before was based on people's failures," Rheingold points out. What the new regulation is really doing is forcing these companies to be more honest (a little bit more honest, at least), which means customers are now aware of these fees up front instead of getting zinged with surprise charges later.

"What's particularly irritating about this blame game by the banks is that fees have not been banned and rates have not been limited," points out Ruth Susswein, deputy director of national priorities for advocacy group Consumer Action. "There is still much more flexibility there than they would like to admit. It's very convenient to blame regulations."

Banks still make money in oodles of other ways, such as lending money to other institutions for very short periods of time, credit card interchange fees, proprietary trading and consulting for big companies. They just got used to outsized profits during the boom years and want to keep the good times rolling even though today's economy is a very different place for those of us on Main Street.

It's worth noting that most -- though not all -- new deposit account fees can be waived under certain circumstances. Banks have installed a variety of waiver conditions such as keeping a certain amount of money in your account at all times, using your linked credit card, having direct deposits made to your account or depositing a certain amount per month into the account. This will no doubt spare many of us the hassle of having to pay a monthly fee. But for people who don't have or can't get direct deposit, don't have a steady income stream or live paycheck to paycheck, these new fees will sting. Consumer watchdogs say it's unfair that these new account fees will slam those people who can least afford to pay $5 or $25 a month.

Your other option, of course, is to switch banks. Yes, it's a serious pain in the neck, but don't let the behavior of the big banks fool you: Many -- in fact, a majority -- of banks in this country don't charge any kind of fee to deposit account holders at all. According to Mike Schenk, vice president of economics and statistics for the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), 64% of banks offer checking accounts that don't require a monthly fee, while 80% of credit unions do the same.

Schenk points out that the average amount paid by credit union customers for all fees is less than the average amount bank customers pay. "In a given year, the average bank checking customer incurred $183 in total fees," he says. "For credit union customers, that amount was less than $72," he says. CUNA's research found similar disparities when it compared average car loan rates, too. "We're not-for-profit and owned by our members, which gives us flexibility to absorb some of these costs and to live in an environment with slightly lower earnings," Schenk explains.

The moral of the story? "Shop around," says NACA's Rheingold. "It's a little more complicated," he acknowledges, but adds that the price consumers pay for not checking out all their options is only going to rise.

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