Banks want consumers to take on more debt

Posted: October 18, 2011

Exorbitant bank debit-card fees wrongly target responsible consumers who would rather pay as they go than accumulate high credit-card debt.

Bank of America first announced a $5 monthly fee to customers who use debit cards to shop, but Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are testing similar fees and others are sure to follow.

This comes as customers are increasingly wondering why they have to pay more to access their own hard-earned cash.

Less than half the nation's banks offer free checking, down from 76 percent two years ago, according to Customers already pay non-network ATM fees that can be as much as $5.

Financially prudent shoppers can use debit cards to keep from overspending because payments come out of existing funds. People who can't get credit use debit cards to reach financial stability.

For both groups, debit cards are a sound alternative to racking up credit-card bills, which draw interest payments and other fees.

But now, careful consumers are going to have to shoulder the banks' costs of stopping another abuse, known as "interchange" or swipe fees, which retailers lobbied Congress to change.

These are the fees banks charged merchants for accepting debit cards. Merchants paid up to 44 cents per transaction until a new rule went into effect Oct. 1, limiting them to 21 cents per transaction.

Banks say swipe-fee cuts would cost them billions of dollars, so they're passing on the losses to their customers. But it's hard to cry for the banks when these are the same institutions that have yet to reduce excessive and lopsided executive pay packages that helped pushed the nation into a financial tail spin.

Fortunately, some backlash has already started, with PNC Bank and a few credit unions taking out ads bragging that they have "free" debit cards. Although there is pending federal legislation that would make it easier to switch banks, there are no guarantees that fees won't suddenly appear at a new bank.

If the little guy is feeling put upon, it's because he is. Aren't consumers supposed to be getting their fiscal houses in order, so they can recover from the recession and prepare for what's next? The Bank of America debit-card fee won't go into effect until next year. That leaves plenty of time for consumer outrage to stop it.

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