There was a lot of rightful celebration when Bank of America and other major banks were forced to drop planned debit card fees following major protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement and other community groups. But, not shockingly, the major banks are still finding ways to squeeze money out of customers. The New York Times has a report at the more subtle ways banks are using to extract more wealth from the 99%. Citing the need to make up billions of dollars in lost overdraft penalties and swipe fees that were eliminated by Congress, banks are trying to make up the difference in other areas.
For consumers, the result is a quiet creep of new charges and higher fees for everything from cash withdrawals at ATMs to wire payments, paper statements and in some cases, even the overdraft charges that lawmakers hoped to ratchet down. What is more, banks are raising minimum account balances and adding other new requirements so that it is harder for customers to qualify for fee waivers.
Even the much-maligned debit usage charges have effectively been bundled into higher monthly fees on checking accounts. Bank of America abandoned its $5 a month debit card usage fee in late October amid a firestorm of criticism. Yet, it more quietly raised the cost of its basic MyAccess checking account by more than $3 a month earlier this year. Monthly maintenance fees now run $12 a month, up from $8.95.
The Times’ report notes that Senators Dick Durbin and Jack Reed are pushing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to have banks “adopt a more consumer-friendly disclosure form, akin to the nutrition label on food packaging, for all the fees attached to a checking account.” This is a pretty good idea, in that it would make decision making by consumers easier. But the whole problem consumers are facing today is that they already have accounts with banks and the banks are changing the fee structure on them. While the Move Your Money campaign is a great start, it’s also clear that a complete banking shift isn’t the same thing as switching from Frosted Flakes to Cheerios.
Most importantly, what’s clear is that when you fight the big banks, you can win, but no win is final. Stopping the $5 debit card fee was a great victory for the Occupy movement and consumer advocates, but it’s hardly the whole war. Banks will keep trying to extract every penny possible from consumers in the absence of regulation which prevents them from doing it and regulators committed to enforcing the regulations. Consumers need to stay wary and consumer advocates have to keep fighting back against bank greed. As the banks continue to find new and innovative ways to screw their customers, credit unions will keep gaining customers as people stand up and say, “Enough!” To put it differently, the more banks abuse their customers, the more the market will speak and tell them that this is not a behavior consumers are interested in supporting.