When banks turn evil

We knew there were going to be fees. But booby traps? Here's how to fight back.
By Liz Pulliam Weston

Banks have to make money to stay in business. I was an economics major, so I get that.

What I don't get is why so many consumers do nothing as banks get bolder and bolder about picking their pockets. It's no longer nickel-and-diming -- we're losing $10, $20 and $30 a pop as banks come up with ever-more-creative ways to "fee" us to death.

The banking industry collects more than $50 billion a year in various service charges, more than twice the total of a decade ago. It's time we pushed back.

Sometimes just shining the light of scrutiny on these policies is enough to get banks to back down; read below about what happened recently with ING Direct bank. Other times, we need to protest, involve our lawmakers or even move our money elsewhere.

Here are some of the most egregious practices, and what you can do about them:

Checks clear almost immediately; deposits take days

In recent years, changes in federal laws have all but eliminated "float" -- the time it takes for a check to clear from the writer's bank account. What used to take days now often takes hours or less. What hasn't been speeded up is the time it takes for deposits to clear and be available for your withdrawal.


The Fed is required by law to reduce maximum deposit hold times as check-processing gets faster, but it recently decided against requiring banks to make deposits available sooner. Essentially, regulators concluded that even though money disappears from your account a lot quicker these days, it still doesn't disappear fast enough to warrant the extra costs banks might face from crediting you with your deposits more quickly. So: Heads you lose, tails the banks win

What you can do: Kick up a fuss with your lawmakers. Banks make billions from consumer accounts; they should be required to invest some of that in speeding up deposits. (You can locate your U.S. representative here and your senators here. You'll find telephone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses on their individual pages.)

Stacking the deck against you

Most big banks, and many smaller ones, process checks that arrive the same day in order of their size, with the largest check processed first. Banks say they do this to increase the odds that consumers' most important checks, such as mortgage and car payments, get paid. Consumer advocates say it's simply a way to jack up overdraft fees, which make up the majority of account service charges that banks collect. Here's how it works: Let's say you have $500 in your account, and you write checks for $10, $55 and $450. If the bank processed from smallest to largest, only one overdraft fee would be generated. By processing them from largest to smallest, two bounce fees can be collected.


What you can do: Obviously, you should try to avoid writing checks when there's not enough money in your account to cover them. But even the most conscientious consumer can get tripped up now and then (especially if there's a hold on your deposits, or if the bank messes up -- as mine did recently by processing a $403.50 transaction as $4,035.00). So sign up for overdraft protection that links your checking account to a savings account or line of credit; the fees and other costs involved are generally much lower than when you bounce a check. If you do get hit with an overdraft free, ask your bank to waive it as a one-time courtesy.

Charging for 'potential' overdrafts

(Note to readers: This section has been rewritten to clarify how Wachovia Bank assesses bounced-check fees.) A poster named haberschmidt recently alerted the blogosphere to the way Wachovia Bank increases bounced check fees. Some of the poster’s charges are incorrect, according to bank spokeswoman Mary Beth Navarro, including his assertion that Wachovia deducts bounce fees before processing transactions that overdraw an account. Each night, Navarro said, Wachovia first credits deposits, then deducts all transactions that have posted, and then finally assesses bounced-check fees.

But Navarro confirmed that the bank does assess bounced-check fees when transactions exceed an account’s “available” balance, even if the real balance in the account is actually high enough to prevent an overdraft.

Here's how it works: You use your debit card like a credit card at a store, signing your name to the transaction instead of entering a personal identification number (PIN). Because this is a signature-based transaction, the money is processed through the credit card payments system, which means the cash takes a few days to actually leave your account.

Banks typically don't wait, however, to deduct the transaction from your so-called "available balance" -- the money that's available for other spending. Where Wachovia differs from many of its banking brethren is what happens when other transactions are processed that exceed this "available balance." With many banks, you won't get a bounced-check fee unless you exceed the actual balance in your account. With Wachovia, you can wind up with a fee if you exceed the "available balance" -- even if you actually have enough money in your account to cover the transactions.

What you can do: As above, it's important to closely monitor your accounts and to keep a pad of cash in them (read "Why you need $500 in the bank" for more details). That said, banks shouldn't be allowed to charge for overdrafts before they happen. If you're a Wachovia customer, raise hell, contact your lawmakers and consider moving to another bank.

The oxymoronic 'courtesy overdraft'

Courtesy overdraft, also known as bounced-check protection, is a far cry from true overdraft protection. Instead of tapping into one of your own accounts, you're borrowing the bank's money and being charged hefty fees for the privilege. What's more, banks often sign you up for this "service" without your consent, and the sneakiest ones even add the amount of the "protection" to the balance you see when you check your account at an ATM. In other words, you're being told you have more money in your account than you actually do, which can lead you to overdraft your account and create more fees for the bank. (For more details, read "Don't be duped by bounced-check 'protection.' ")

What you can do: Call your bank and ask if you have "courtesy overdraft" or "bounced-check protection;" if so, try to get it removed from your account and replace it instead with real overdraft protection.

Fat fees for using personal-finance software

One of the best ways to track your accounts and prevent problems like overdrafts is by using personal-finance software such as Money or Quicken. These programs not only allow you to easily download your recent transactions, but help you forecast your cash flow in the future so you can predict when you might need to get extra cash into your checking account. So naturally, some banks ding you for $6 to $10 a month for using the software to automatically download your transactions.


Do I have a dog in this fight? You bet I do. I'm a longtime user of this software, and I write for MSN Money, which is owned by Microsoft, maker of Money. Even if neither of those things were true, however, I'd find it awfully suspicious that the majority of financial institutions find a way to provide automatic downloads for free, yet a handful of large banks -- Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo among them -- find it necessary to charge over $100 a year for the same service.

What you can do: You may be able to get around the charges by using a more manual download process that involves going to the institution's Web site and clicking a few buttons, but that's a hassle. A better solution if you like the more automated download feature may be switching financial institutions. Washington Mutual, Charles Schwab, ING Direct and others support the automatic downloads without charging for the privilege.

Closing accounts because of bad credit

ING Direct, an online bank, says it was all a mistake. But some 5,300 customers were recently sent e-mails telling them their checking accounts would be closed because of their low credit scores. Many of these customers were understandably disturbed, since there are plenty of ways your credit scores can plummet that have nothing to do with your ability to manage a checking account.


When I called ING Direct USA CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann to ask about this seemingly unprecedented move, he couldn't apologize fast enough. "That was obviously an error," he said of the mass e-mailing. "The letter was worded wrong. . . . We do not give or deny one of our accounts" based solely on credit scores. The bank does use credit scores, he said, to help determine the size of a customer's overdraft line of credit. Within hours of my phone call, ING Direct customers who received the original e-mails reported receiving e-mails from the bank's chief operating officer, Jim Kelly, apologizing for the mess and assuring them their accounts would be restored.

What you can do: If you run across an obviously unfair bank practice, don't keep it to yourself. Someone who received the original ING Direct e-mail posted a message about it on the Consumerist Web site; Wachovia's practice of "potential" overdrafts was highlighted on Wesabe.com. Shout about what you see on those sites, or on MSN Money's own Your Money message board. Draw enough attention, and perhaps we can head off some of the worst policies before they become "industry standards."

Columns by Liz Pulliam Weston

Published May 21, 2007 (MSN)