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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bank fees rose to record $37.8B last year

USA Today

Record-high bank fees are making it harder for consumers like Felipe and Racheli Vidal to stay financially afloat. The Vidals were hit with $926 in overdraft fees in the 12 months that ended in July for spending $1,248.61 more than they had in their bank accounts.

The penalties came out to nearly three-quarters of the amount they overdrew. Sometimes, the fees were more expensive than the actual transaction: An $8.40 meal of Wendy's chicken nuggets and drinks in April ended up costing the Vidals three times that amount in penalties. "I'm admittedly poor at managing my bank account, not knowing where my money is," says Felipe, 35, who lives in Miami Lakes, Fla., with his wife and two daughters. "People don't pay attention, and frankly, institutions are taking advantage of that weakness."

After Vidal told his credit union, Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union, that he had been interviewed by USA Today, it said it would refund his fees.

Bob Vale, an attorney at Eastern Financial, says the credit union reversed the charges because "this was a fair and reasonable thing to do." Not everyone is so lucky. Last year, banks, thrifts and credit unions collected a record $37.8 billion in service charges on deposit accounts, more than double what they collected in 1994, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the National Credit Union Administration. These fees provide a more stable source of income to banks than products tied to fluctuating interest rates.

Bounced-check and ATM fees are at record levels. Consumers also are paying more in service charges for checking accounts, and banks are requiring higher balances to open and avoid fees on interest-bearing accounts, according to Bankrate.com.

And banks that issue credit cards are increasing fees for late payments and over-the-limit charges to as much as $35 per violation.

Make this mistake once or twice, and you could see your interest rate go to 30 percent.

Many fees are going up because "These are not things that are subject to price competition," says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "No bank is going to advertise low bounced-check fees."

Banks say the costs of providing products and services are high, and they have to recoup their investment through fees. Fee increases are a normal part of business because banks and thrifts "are for-profit ventures," says Sam Davis, president of Strunk & Associates, which advises financial institutions. "Financial institutions shouldn't have to be apologetic or defensive about making money."

Besides, the majority of customers are paying minimal bank fees, according to the American Bankers Association, a bank trade group. A recent ABA poll of 1,003 consumers found that 65 percent spend $3 or less in monthly fees for bank services such as checking-account maintenance and ATM withdrawals.

Most fees are "largely avoidable and waivable," says Nessa Feddis, senior federal counsel at the ABA. "It's a bit illusory to say that (out-of-network) ATM fees are rising, because most people aren't paying for them."

Angie Rush isn't one of those people. Rush, 30, of Toledo, Ohio, does her best to avoid fees. She usually withdraws a few hundred dollars at the beginning of each month and has driven 10 to 15 miles out of her way to use her local bank's ATM. Despite these efforts, Rush and her husband pay an ATM surcharge once or twice a month unavoidable, she says, because, "If you're out of town, you have to go to a foreign ATM."

One of the newest fees and one of the most profitable for banks is the courtesy overdraft. If you don't have enough money in your account to cover your mortgage-payment check, the bank might automatically pay it and then charge you up to $35.

This differs from traditional overdraft protection because customers don't sign up for it, and banks may not pay all transactions. It also usually costs significantly more than transferring funds from your savings or using a line of credit to cover overdrafts.

Last year, consumers paid about $10 billion in overdraft loans, estimates the Center for Responsible Lending. These fees make up more than a quarter of banks' and credit unions' overall service-charge income.

Courtesy overdraft is controversial because, unlike other types of bounced-check protection, any money lent by the bank is taken out of the consumer's next deposit. The fees and the short time that's given to pay back the overdraft amount often translate to "triple-digit interest rates," says Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

Banks disagree. They say this practice, which caught on in the late 1990s, protects those who unwittingly write checks or make purchases for which they have no money. Typically, customers are covered for up to $500 in transactions.