Sharon Drapeau signed up for overdraft protection on her checking account, thinking it would protect her from penalty fees if she overdrew. But that's not exactly how things turned out.
"I got hit with the bank charge for the transfer and the bank charge for the overdraft, and because I had written a check, I got charged the returned check fee," she said.
Consumer Reports' Greg Daugherty says government rules that went into effect in 2010 were supposed to help curb abusive bank fees, but it hasn't worked out that way.
"Now your bank must get you to sign up for overdraft protection. Then it will cover you if you spend more money than you have in your account," he said.
For instance, if your account is overdrawn, you're still able to use your debit card to buy a cup of coffee, a magazine, or a pack of gum. But for each transaction you can be charged as much as $35 a pop.
Banks are raking in more than $31 billion a year in overdraft fees. Drapeau says overdraft protection is a sham.
"Don't say that I'm protecting myself by signing up for the program when there's still going to be this charge," she said.
To get some real protection, you should first decline your bank's offer to opt in for overdraft protection. But if you're already signed up, opt out.
"You won't be able to use your debit card if you don't have enough money in your account. But be aware, you can still be charged overdraft fees for things like a bounced check and automatic withdrawals if there isn't the money to cover them," said Daugherty
Another good idea would be to sign up for alerts, which is what Drapeau eventually opted for instead.
"We filed alerts. We have alerts that e-mail us or they'll text us when our account is under a certain amount that we set," she said.
Another move to minimize fees is to link your savings and checking accounts so you'll have that much more money to draw upon when your balance gets low. You might get charged a transfer fee, but those are generally much lower than overdraft fees.