Consumer Advocates Critical Of Big Banks' Fee Hikes

The Record ( — Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Record

For 20 years, New Jersey has required that banks offer a $3 a month, $1 minimum balance account so the poor — who have increased in number — can have affordable banking services. Yet national banks ignore the mandate because the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a federal regulator, issued an opinion in the 1990s that the law doesn't apply to federally chartered banks.

Now some of the big national banks are raising monthly checking account fees to $10 or more and consumer advocates are increasingly concerned about the burden that will place on poor people who cannot get fees waived by maintaining large balances or by using online banking, because they don't have computers.

"I think [fee hikes] will increase the number of unbanked people we have in New Jersey," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action. "This is not the group of people that they should be looking to make money from."

She and other consumer advocates are encouraging people to switch to community banks and credit unions, which still offer free checking.

Fee hikes by big banks — including Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citibank — were spurred by a government crackdown on overdraft penalty charges and anticipated losses of income from a cap on debit-card swipe fees that banks charge merchants. The cap goes into effect Oct. 1.

The New Jersey Consumer Checking Account, offered by state-chartered banks for the past 20 years, can be opened with a deposit of $50 or less, and customers can write at least eight checks a month with no extra charges.

But bankers say few people use the accounts because most state-chartered banks offer other accounts that are better deals, with no monthly maintenance charges and little or no minimum-balance requirements.

Englewood Cliffs-based North Jersey Community Bank offers free checking, and offers a "switch kit" to guide people through the process of moving their accounts. But so far, few have used it, said Frank Sorrentino, the bank's chief executive officer.

"Maybe $10 will be the tipping point," he said. "I don't understand why people stay in abusive relationships, but they do," he said.

Checking costs  Here is a sampling of monthly checking fees for those with less than $250 in the bank and no direct deposit.  Bank of America: $12  Citibank: $8  Wells Fargo: $5  New Jersey Consumer Checking*: $3  *Offered by state-chartered banks  Sources: The banks

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