Hidden bank fees, how to avoid them

October 4, 2011 Bank of America, the country's largest bank, announced last week that it's going to start charging $5 a month to customers who use their debit cards for purchases. It set off a fire storm from angry customers. The announcement caused its website to crash and many customers say they will switch banks.

Here's a 4-step plan to help you uncover a new crop hidden fees and find a bank that won't break yours.

"The latest blow to banks are new rules, that virtually cut in half the fee that large banks can charge retailers when people pay with their debit cards," said Greg Daugherty, Consumer Reports Money Advisor.

Banks have lost billions of dollars as a result of bad loans, the weak economy, and recent regulatory changes, and they're looking to recoup some of it. But that doesn't mean that using your money has to cost you more of it.

"You really should look at your bank statements, because there may be fees you're being charged for that you're not even aware of," said consumer Bill Nugent.

Daugherty said Nugent's plan of attack is the best first step to battling new bank fees. You need to be proactive. Make sure you read all bank correspondence, even if it looks like junk mail, and comb through the fine print in search of any new fees.

Secondly, negotiate with your bank. If you're a longtime customer or you make large deposits, you might be able to get a better deal or have certain fees waived. If your bank is canning free checking, ask around to see which ones will still consider the free service if you add on something else, like direct deposit.

Next ditch the debit. That $5 dollar Bank of America debit fee is due to go into effect in January so consider using a credit card instead, as long as you pay it off each month, use good old cash or pay by check.

Finally, if you're having a minimum balance meltdown, consolidate. Keep all of your accounts at a single bank so that both checking and savings count toward your minimum.

"If there's no way around higher fees, consider moving your account. Good places to consider are local banks, credit unions, and online banks," Daugherty said.

Consumer Reports says online banks often reimburse you for ATM fees. Ally Bank, for example, also offers no-fee, interest-bearing, checking accounts.

Rewards programs are also being cut and some banks are charging customers $5 to replace lost cards.

Here are some other recent changes at the four largest banks:


- A new $5 fee to replace debit cards took effect in September; a rush overnight order costs $20. Previously, both services were free.

- The bank is currently testing a menu of checking accounts with a variety of fee options in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts. The fees range from $6 to $25 a month depending on the level of service.

- In May, the monthly fee on the basic MyAccess account rose to $12, from the previous $8.95. Customers can still avoid the fee by setting up direct deposit of at least $250 or maintaining a balance of $1,500.

- The bank introduced its eBanking account in August of last year. Customers are offered free checking if they opt to receive statements online, and do their banking online and at ATMs. If they want to make a deposit or withdrawal through a teller at a branch, they're charged a one-time fee of $8.95 for that month.


- The bank ended its debit rewards program in July. A month later, the bank introduced a new program that offers customers varying cash back offers when shopping through its online mall. Some customers are also emailed limited-time, in-store cash back offers.

- In February, Chase introduced a new basic checking account with a $12 monthly fee, up from the previous $6. The fee is waived for customers who make direct deposits that total $500 a month or maintain a minimum balance of $1,500. Previously, the fee on the basic checking account was waived when customers made at least five debit card purchases a month.

-The bank earlier this year tested $4 and $5 ATM fees for non-customers in Texas and Illinois, respectively. The test was ended in May.

-The bank is testing a $3 monthly fee for debit cards in northern Wisconsin.

-Chase is also testing a $15 monthly fee for basic checking accounts in Georgia.


- Starting in December, Citi said it will raise the fee on its basic checking account to $10 a month, up from $8. Customers will have to maintain a balance of at least $1,500 or sign up for direct deposit and online bill pay to avoid the fee. Currently, the monthly fee is waived if customers make at least five transactions of any type each month.

- Citi also said it will no longer give rewards points for debit card purchases. But the bank said customers will be able to earn more points each month by opening a Citi savings account or setting up a feature that automatically transfers money into a savings account.

- Following the Bank of America announcement this week, Citi noted that it has no plans to introduce a debit card fee.


- The bank is ending its debit rewards program in October.

-The bank also plans to test a $3 monthly debit card fee starting Oct. 14. The fee will be applied to checking accounts opened in Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. The fee would be in addition to the fees ranging from $5 to $30 that Wells Fargo already charges. Those monthly fees can be waived if customers meet certain conditions.

-The bank stopped offering free checking accounts with no strings attached in July of last year.

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