Banks Raking It In on the Debit Cards of Cash Strapped Americans

Debit cards = "FAST AS CASH!"
Image by Billy V via Flickr

Everyone in America who has a bank account and uses debit cards has had this happen – see the story below. During the summer of 2008 I was hit by $233 in fees for several very minor debit card purchases, (under $5 each) when a deposit I had made days earlier somehow mysteriously failed to post to my account for over 3 days. I believe this is a criminal activity being perpetrated by banks in plain sight. There really is no excuse for holding someone’s deposit for an extra 3 days so that their debit card purchases will bounce and incur a $34 fee with each use. I closed my accounts with the offending bank, and went back to good old fashioned cash. 60 days later Washington Mutual collapsed and was bought out by Chase out of NYC. Interesting timing huh?

After I closed that account I saved myself hundreds of dollars in those evil fees. Is it time to put together a massive class action lawsuit against USA  financial institutions who constantly tinker with customers’ accounts by delaying the posting of their deposits just long enough that their debit card use will incur excessive fees? Sound off in your comments. – Chase Hunter

Overspending on Debit Cards Is a Boon for Banks

Published: September 8, 2009

When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.

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Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Ryan Pena has filed a lawsuit against Wachovia Bank. The suit charges that the bank reorders debit card transactions in order to maximize the overdraft fees they can charge.

The Debit Card: Trap or Sound Choice?

Room for DebateShould there be tighter regulation of debit cards and overdraft fees?

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Frontline LogoThis article is part of a joint reporting project with the PBS program “Frontline.”

Matthew Staver for The New York Times

Peter Means’s bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward.

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So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.

Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge.

Banks and credit unions have long pitched debit cards as a convenient and prudent way to buy. But a growing number are now allowing consumers to exceed their balances — for a price.

Banks market it as overdraft protection, and the fees it generates have become an important source of income for the banking industry at a time of big losses in other operations. This year alone, banks are expected to bring in $27 billion by covering overdrafts on checking accounts, typically on debit card purchases or checks that exceed a customer’s balance.

In fact, banks now make more covering overdrafts than they do on penalty fees from credit cards.

But because consumers use debit cards far more often than credit cards, a cascade of fees can be set off quickly, often for people who are least able to afford it. Some banks further increase their revenue by manipulating the order of a customer’s transactions in a way that causes more of them to incur overdraft fees.

“Banks will let you overspend on your debit card in a way that is much, much more expensive than almost any credit card,” said Eric Halperin, director of the Washington office of the Center for Responsible Lending.

Debit has essentially changed into a stealth form of credit, according to critics like him, and three quarters of the nation’s largest banks, except for a few like Citigroup and INGDirect, automatically cover debit and A.T.M. overdrafts.

Although regulators have warned of abuses since at least 2001, they have done little to curb the explosive growth of overdraft fees. But as a consumer outcry grows, the practice is under attack, and regulators plan to introduce new protections before year’s end. The proposals do not seek to ban overdraft fees altogether. Rather, regulators and lawmakers say they hope to curb abuses and make the fees more fair.

The Federal Reserve is considering requiring banks to get permission from consumers before enrolling them in overdraft programs, so that consumers like Mr. Means are not caught unaware at the cash register.

Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, would go even further by requiring warnings when a debit card purchase will overdraw an account and by barring banks from running the most expensive purchases through accounts first.

The proposals carry considerable momentum given the popularity of credit card legislation signed into law in May. They also have a certain inevitable logic, since the credit card legislation requires a similar “opt in” decision from consumers who want to spend more than their credit limits and pay the corresponding over-the-limit fees. Overdrafts are simply the reverse, where the limit is zero, and the bank charges a fee for going under it.

But with so much at stake, the banking industry is intent on holding its ground.

Bankers say they are merely charging a fee for a convenience that protects consumers from embarrassment, like having a debit card rejected on a dinner date. Ultimately, they add, consumers have responsibility for their own finances.

“Everyone should know how much they have in their account and manage their funds well to avoid those fees,” said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable, an advocacy group for large financial institutions.

Some experts warn that a sharp reduction in overdraft fees could put weakened financial institutions out of business.

Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.

“Will they be able to replace it with another fee?” Mr. Moebs said. “Not immediately and not soon enough.”

They will certainly try. For instance, some banks have said they might slap a monthly fee of between $10 to $20 on every free checking account. At the moment, people who pay overdraft fees help subsidize the free accounts of those who do not.

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About CKH888

Not much to tell. Um.... I author news and art blogs now & then. :-)
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