News Column

Consumers Union Urges Big Banks To Drop Debit Fees

Oct 19, 2011

J. Scott Trubey


A prominent consumer group on Tuesday called on major banks, including Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, to drop announced monthly charges for debit card use.

Consumers Union also sent letters to Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase saying the fees are "ill-timed and unfair."

Bank of America and SunTrust recently announced plans to charge $5 per month for certain customers to use debit cards to make purchases. Wells Fargo is testing a $3 monthly debit fee in some markets, including Georgia. Chase also is testing a fee in certain areas.

The plans angered customers and consumer watchdogs, and even triggered calls from some Democrats in Congress for probes by the U.S. Justice Department. The big banks have said they are reacting to regulatory changes that cut into their revenue.

Customers can avoid the fees by meeting certain criteria.

SunTrust, Wells Fargo and Bank of America are the Top Three banks in metro Atlanta by deposits, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. Chase ranks 13th.

"If Bank of America and the other banks refuse to drop the debit card fee, consumers should consider dropping them," Norma Garcia, director of Consumers Union's financial services program, said in a news release.

Recent rules under the Durbin Amendment of Dodd-Frank financial reform act put a cap on what banks greater than $10 billion in assets can charge merchants to process debit purchases. The cap doesn't apply for smaller institutions and many small banks and credit unions don't charge for debit use.

Other recent regulations also have cut into banks' fee revenue streams.

A Bank of America spokeswoman directed comment to the Electronic Payments Coalition, a group representing many banks, credit unions and the payment networks of Visa and MasterCard.

Trish Wexler, an EPC spokeswoman, said consumer anger should be directed at merchants who lobbied for the cap on swipe fees. Fees, she said "are all part of the widely-predicted consequences of the Durbin Amendment," which caps what banks charge merchants.

A bill to repeal the amendment, part of the broader Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, was recently introduced in the House.

Big banks have accused government of price fixing and said the cap doesn't cover the cost of debit services. Consumers Union disputes that, citing a Federal Reserve study.

"We typically wouldn't comment on correspondence from a constituent, but would expect to appropriately respond directly to the organization," a SunTrust spokesman said.

Chase "has tested a debit card fee in a couple of small markets, and we have no plans to expand the fee," a spokeswoman said.

Wells Fargo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Source: (c)2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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