Bank fees for checking accounts, overdrafts and ATMs continue to go up year after year, but there are still plenty of ways to avoid them.
Average monthly fees for maintaining a checking account, the average charge for using an ATM and the average overdraft fee all rose in the first half of 2012, after a slight dip in the latter part of last year, according to MoneyRates.com.
Minimum balances also rose, and only 45 percent of banks still offer free checking accounts without minimum balance requirements, according to MoneyRates and Bankrate.com.
"Consumers need to be on the alert," said Richard Barrington, senior financial analyst for MoneyRates.com. "This is the most comprehensive rising fee trend we've seen in one of our checking account surveys, which means it is likely to affect more people than ever."
Consumers can still get around those annoying fees if they understand the complex rules of their accounts -- such as using only their own bank's ATMs -- and bank accordingly. That includes monitoring their account to see what may be happening.
"This doesn't just matter when you are shopping for a checking account," Barrington said. "You need to watch for new fees popping up in your existing accounts."
So what should consumers do?
--Know the basic terms of your account, including the minimum balance required. Monitor your account and stay above that minimum to avoid monthly fees. If you can't, find a different account or bank.
--Stick to your own bank's ATM machines as much as possible. If you have to use another bank's ATM, such as when you're traveling, find the cheapest alternative. Be aware of how much your own bank may charge you, and look for the warning on the other bank's ATM about how much that bank will charge you. And plan your ATM trips to minimize the number of times you have to go.
--Keep track of the timing of your deposits and withdrawals. Make sure you always have enough in your account to cover checks and electronic transactions.
--Opt-out of your bank's overdraft or "bounce" protection program if it just offers to cover any overdraft but charges you a high fee or series of fees. Instead, find out if your bank allows you to link your checking account to a savings account, credit card or line of credit. Usually, the transfer fee is significantly less and you just have to repay the "loan" and any interest.
--If you're still not happy, shop around and compare the options. Consider a small community bank or a credit union.
However, the banks certainly don't make it easy. Consumers have to wade through disclosure documents and account agreements that average 69 pages in length and can reach 150 pages, with dozens of fees and confusing terms buried in the fine print, according to a recent report by Pew Charitable Trust. Pew also criticized banks for not providing consumers with a clear summary of important fee information or giving them a clear picture of overdraft options.
"Consumers should be able to comparison shop," said Cora Hume, project manager for Pew's Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project. "Right now, it's difficult to do because of the length of the disclosures."
Banks also restrict consumers' options for handling disputes. And if consumers want to switch to a different bank or to a credit union -- as nearly one-fifth of all consumers with checking accounts considered earlier this year -- they might be deterred by a combination of bank policies and the headache of transferring automatic payments, according to Consumers Union.
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