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Banks may reduce high overdraft charges

October 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The charges for overdrawing on your checking account have almost tripled in the past decade. But consumer complaints are beginning to make banks change their policies.Ronda Salas is a struggling mom with two small children. Money is so tight that along with her husband, they all live with his grandfather in Carson. It's one way they can make ends meet.

But Ronda couldn't believe it when she went online and saw that her bank had charged her five different overdraft fees to cover five debit card purchases she made when there wasn't enough money in her bank account. The overdraft fees were $35 each.

"It cost me something like $38 for my iced tea at In-N-Out because I had ran my card, went under zero, and that $35 fee, plus the iced tea," said Salas.

Ronda admits she should have kept a closer eye on her bank accounts but says the fees, which totaled $165, were outrageous in comparison to the small amounts she was overdrawn, and no plea for mercy would change things.

"They will only remove a fee if it's a banking error, and it doesn't matter if you're crying, if you say you have very little money, which I tried doing, and the lady just says, 'I'm human and this breaks my heart, but we can't, it's not a banking error,'" said Salas.

Harvey Rosenfield of Consumer Watchdog says that the banking industry will collect as much as $38 billion this year on overdraft protection fees. That's more than they'll collect on penalties from credit cards and is nearly double what was collected in 2000, which was $19.9 billion.

Overdraft charges are not covered by the Truth in Lending Act, which means that banks don't have to disclose the interest rate they can charge on those fees. In fact, a recent FDIC study shows a customer could be charged an annual percentage rate of a whopping 3,520 percent.

"There is no limit to what the banks can get away with," said Rosenfield.

But the California Bankers Association says most fees are entirely avoidable.

"If customers are on top of their checking account balance, most people can avoid an overdraft fee if you're not spending more money than you've got in your account, you should be assessed an overdraft fee," explained Beth Mills

But when Eyewitness News talked to Ronda's bank, Bank of America, they did make a change in policy and responded with a statement saying:

"We recognize that many of our customers are facing financial challenges...we have established a customer assistance program to offer unemployed customers immediate fee relief, including waiving monthly account maintenance fees and refunding fees for non-sufficient funds on overdrafts."

Bank of America also says starting Oct. 19, they will cap the fees it charges and not charge a fee if the account is overdrawn by $10 or less.

In addition, JPMorgan Chase also announced a change in their overdraft fees and practices. Chase says in 2010, they will eliminate fees on accounts overdrawn by $5 or less and will make overdraft protection an option for all customers.

Consumer complaints are beginning to make a difference, but several banks still have the same old fees and practices.


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