April 18, 2024

Bucks: Banks Make You Work For Their Fee Lists

When it comes to comparing bank fees, shopping around isn’t as easy as it should be.

That’s the conclusion the U.S. Public Interest Research Group drew after studying whether banks are providing lists of their fees upon requests, as they’re required to do by federal law.

The PIRG study found that most banks gave prospective customers brochures with general account information. But often, the banks had to be pressed to hand over detailed lists of fees, like those for bounced checks, opening accounts and using a competitor’s ATM, which the Truth in Savings Act requires banks to provide upon request.

Of 392 banks and credit unions visited, PIRG said, just 38 percent quickly complied with the law. Compliance edged up to 55 percent after a second or third request. But almost a fourth (23 percent) failed to provide a list at all.

I was curious to see how banks in my community compared to those in PIRG’s survey, which used secret shoppers to visit bank branches and request fee information. The federal Government Accountability Office has done similar research, with similar findings.

So this week I spent a morning visiting five different bank branches in Northwest Arkansas and asked for information about checking and savings accounts.

I didn’t say I was a reporter; I said I was thinking of switching banks and wanted to get information about their accounts, including any fees.

The results of my little survey? You can get detailed fee information, but you’ll probably have to sit through a sales pitch first. And don’t count on getting the goods the first time you ask; you may have to fuss a little, as they say in these parts.

None of the banks, as far as I could tell, had the lists ready for the taking on a display rack as you enter the branch; you have to talk to someone first, and usually an account representative, not just a teller.

Banks in my personal survey did a bit better than those in PIRG’s, in that none refused to me give their fee schedule. Of the six branches I visited — Bank of America, Arvest, Bank of Arkansas, Regions, First Security and Bank of the Ozarks—I left just one, First Security, without a copy of the fee schedule in my hand. The young account representative was apologetic in explaining that he didn’t have any copies handy because the bank was trying to reduce paper by computerizing the information.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t been instructed where to find the digital fee schedule, he said, and his manager was with another customer and unavailable to help. He first offered to give me the information verbally and then said I could probably find it online at the bank’s Web site.

But when I said I wanted a list to take with me, he agreed to e-mail it to me later, if I didn’t want to wait. Sure enough, within an hour, the information was in my inbox. A quick look at the Web site, however, turned up no similar document online. I asked First Security for comment, but had not heard back from them by post time.

At the Bank of Arkansas, the teller first suggested the information was on a brochure she gave me. When that turned out to be incorrect, she checked with her manager before printing out a sheet that, upon close inspection, appeared incomplete; it didn’t appear to list a fee for a bounced check.

Arvest gave me its fee schedule after I sat down and talked with an account representative and a trainee and answered some questions, like what my average balance was likely to be if I opened an account.

At Bank of America, a teller directed me to a chair to wait for a manager, who then asked me if I had a few minutes to chat. When I said I didn’t, she went and retrieved a fat binder that included, along with glossy marketing materials, a fee disclosure pamphlet.

At Bank of the Ozarks, I was ushered to a small office where there was a fee disclosure pamphlet in a desktop holder. The representative, however, said she wasn’t sure that one was current, so she’d be happy to tell me what the fees were. When I said I preferred a list I could take with me, she printed one from her computer.

Regions Bank also printed the fees, after a short chat with a representative who walked me through their checking account options.

My experience and the PIRG report suggests that while most banks comply when nudged, they can make it easier for prospective customers to obtain their fee schedules, in person and online, so consumers can compare the real costs of doing business with a particular institution.

The documents, for example, indicate a wide range of fees for bounced checks (less than $16 for most accounts at Arvest, compared with $35 at Bank of America; a $1 fee at Bank of the Ozarks for using another bank’s ATM, compared with $2 for Regions).

PIRG’s report recommends that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau extend the Truth In Savings requirements to the Internet and that banks be required to list fees in a searchable format to make them easier to find.

What has your experience been? Have you found it easy to compare fees among banks?

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f39c7c95249bf2813b0bb059c46139c9

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