From the Wall Street Journal – Market Watch
By JENNIFER WATERS
Consumers need to keep their guard up as financial institutions increasingly impose new fees and charges.
Banks and credit-card companies have gone on the offensive in advance of new consumer protections the Obama administration is asking Congress to enact. For many consumers, that could mean an unexpected financial sting.
“The fee income is becoming increasingly more important as interest income is falling as a percentage of total revenues,” says Bob Hammer, chief executive of bank-card advisory firm R.K. Hammer.
Late fees, loan-origination fees, over-the-limit and overdraft charges helped generate 53% of banking-industry income in 2008, according to R.K. Hammer, up from 35% of income in 1995. The average bounced-check fee is $28.95, up about $1 from last year, says Greg McBride, senior analyst at Bankrate.com. And it’s a charge that rises every year.
At $19 billion, credit-card penalties for late payments and over-limit charges were up 80% between 2003 and 2008.
Fees aren’t necessarily bad, consumer advocates say, as long as they are reasonable. There’s a lot more involved in a loan origination, for example, than there is in using an ATM. But Adam Levine, chairman of Credit.com, says banks are drawing wide margins around what’s considered “reasonable.”
One thing to keep in mind: It’s worth the time to ask for a pass on fees. No bank is going to advertise that it waives fees on a regular basis, but many will do so when asked.
Here are 10 fees you should keep a close eye on:
1. Checking Account
This is the privilege-of-using-your-own-money charge that many banks did away with years ago. But such fees are starting to creep back into the system, experts warn. Consumers shouldn’t assume their checking accounts are fee-free or, if they are, that they will always continue to be so. Charges vary from a flat monthly fee to one that is dependent on how many transactions you have or on a minimum account balance.
“The type of checking account to now look for is one that does not have a monthly service charge, minimum balance requirement or limit on the number of transactions you can make,” says Bankrate’s Mr. McBride.
If you use an ATM that doesn’t belong to your bank or doesn’t have an agreement with your bank, you could get whacked twice — once by your bank and once by the bank whose ATM you’re using. Fees typically range between $2 and $4. And the bite is getting bigger.
Charges can add up when you unknowingly bounce a check or go over your account balance. Many consumers argue that banks should deny them cash at the ATM if the withdrawal is going to overdraw the account. But most banks don’t do so because allowing the transaction to go through and charging the subsequent penalty brings in money.
4. Deposit Returned
If a check deposited in your account bounces, you’re charged a fee just as if you had bounced the check yourself.
5. Bank Tellers
Banks drew fire from consumers in the 1990s when they tried charging a fee if human interaction occurred when depositing or withdrawing money. There are scattered reports of these fees popping up again, mostly for “excessive” use of tellers. Some banks give you two free teller visits per month, but charge you after that — say, $2 or $4 for each extra visit.
This is the phone version of teller fees. Make a call to ask about your account balance, a charge or to order new checks and you could get hit with a service fee ranging from 50 cents to $5.
7. Closing Accounts
Many banks will charge you a fee if you close an account within 90 days — and sometimes within six months — of opening it. Bankrate has seen fees between $5 and $25.
8. Currency Conversions
Fees to convert currency are on the rise — both what you’re charged when withdrawing local currency from a foreign ATM and what you pay to convert any unspent money back to dollars at your local bank.
9. Credit Cards
Legislation going into effect next year will put caps on some credit-card late and over-limit fees and on how they’re charged against old and new balances. Until then, expect to see them grow. Grace periods also are expected to end or be severely restricted.
10. Annual Memberships
In the early days of credit cards, issuers charged consumers a yearly fee for the right to use the card. Competition drove most annual fees away, but it looks like they may make a comeback. An annual fee could cost you $29 or more.
Write to Jennifer Waters at email@example.com