Americans seethe as banks hit them with new fees

Sun Oct 9, 2011 6:21pm IST

U.S. 100 dollar notes are seen at a bank in this picture illustration in Seoul September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won/Files

U.S. 100 dollar notes are seen at a bank in this picture illustration in Seoul September 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won/Files

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REUTERS - Smoking outside a Bank of America branch in Chicago, restaurant worker Mike Dysangco complained about the "totally ridiculous" new banking fees.

"The economy is not the greatest and they come up with these fees? Do you want our business or not?" asked the waiter who has an account with JPMorgan Chase and was one of the bank customers Reuters interviewed in several major cities.

The largest U.S. banks have been hit by two waves of legislation in the past three years, on credit cards and most recently on debit cards, that have restrained their ability to charge billions of dollars in hidden fees.

Banks have responded to the latest crackdown by announcing in recent weeks new fees to make up for the lost revenue.

The new charges are coming out as the public is growing increasingly restless with high unemployment, Washington political infighting, and a financial industry that seems less vulnerable than the rest of America.

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement has been one face of that dissatisfaction, but the bank fees are a direct hit on consumers' wallets and many people are furious.

"That I'm supposed to pay (Bank of America) money while they fire people so that they can make more money even though they are already richer that Croesus just offends me," said Jim Brown, a federal government worker and Bank of America customer, referring to the wealthy king of Greek mythology.

Bank of America has gotten the most coverage for its fees when it announced last week a new $5 monthly fee on debit card purchasers starting next year.

Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and SunTrust Banks are also testing or planning monthly debit card fees.

Citigroup has opted for fees that penalize depositors who fail to maintain a certain balance.

The new fees have drawn harsh words from President Barack Obama. When asked by ABC News on Monday about fees like the one from Bank of America, Obama said banks don't have an "inherent right" to a certain level of profits.

To answer critics who painted the remarks as anti-business, Obama clarified that statement during a press conference on Thursday, saying he was making a broader point. But he still said it is "not a good practice" for banks to cope with a crackdown on hidden fees by finding other fees to charge customers.

Senator Dick Durbin championed the cap on debit card swipe fees that banks charge retailers and that banks now blame for having to impose new fees. He has told customers to find other banks or credit unions that will not "gouge" them.

"Bank of America customers, vote with your feet, get the heck out of that bank," the Illinois Democrat said on the Senate floor earlier this week.

Some customers interviewed said they have already moved from big banks because of prior rollouts of new account charges.

Erica Perkins said during a walk along Peachtree Street in Atlanta that she stopped doing business with Bank of America years ago, partially because of frustration with emerging fees.

"The banks shouldn't have been taking advantage from the beginning," Perkins said. She now banks with USAA, a financial services company that primarily caters to the U.S. military and their families.

It is hard to tell if this latest backlash will mean big banks lose customers.

Chris Mutascio, a bank analyst with Stifel Nicolaus, said it is a fallacy to think that the largest two or three banks will be the only ones imposing new fees.

Consumers "have options to avoid the debit fee charge, but I think it's a little naive to think they are not going to get charged somewhere else," Mutascio said.

And while some consumers may be irritated, they will stick with large banks because of the convenience.

"I travel internationally, so it's very convenient when you're with a Citibank or a very large bank," said Tom Silva, who works in marketing for a Chicago real estate developer. "It's wonderful being in another continent, being able to access your account."

Other consumers say they will actively shop around for a bank that does not charge a monthly debit card fee.

Deborah Flinn, a Wells Fargo customer who is a paralegal in Washington, said she relies on her debit card so much for groceries, lunch and other shopping that she will try to find a bank with fewer fees.

"Can't the banks suck up some losses?" Flinn asked. "Everyone has had to except for the banks."

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington D.C., with additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Tim Dobbyn)

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