Dear ABC News Fixer: I just got off the phone with my bank after a 45-minute, heated conversation. Here's what happened.
I checked the balance of my debit card and subtracted my outstanding debits, so I knew my balance exactly. I live on a very tight budget. I went to my bank's ATM and withdrew $20, leaving my balance at $68.61. Then I went to the gas station and got gas, using my card at the pump like any normal person would. I bought $15 dollars in gas.
When I got home and checked my balance again, to my surprise I had an overdraft fee of $29!
I went through my account again, trying to figure out what happened. I called the bank first thing the next morning, and they told me that because I used my card at the gas pump, it was pre-authorized for $75 dollars, and because my balance was only $68.61, I got an NSF fee. I was livid, to say the least! How would I have known?
- Sarilyn Vossen, Sistersville, W. Va.
Dear Sarilyn: Yours is an all-too-common problem. The merchant wants to get paid, so they put a preauthorization "hold" on your card. The hold is eventually released after the exact amount at the pump is logged by the processing system, sometimes days later. But the overdraft fee kicks in right away.
You told the ABC News Fixer that your bank said a disclosure should have been posted. The gas station had one -- a tiny 3-by-3-inch sign at the register.
We've heard of pre-authorization holds on debit and credit cards of $100 or more. The consumer has no way to know how long these holds will stay on.
You can avoid holds altogether by going inside to pay for your gas – which is less convenient but produces only one transaction (the actual amount of your purchase).
We asked Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com for some other suggestions. She says you should definitely opt out of your bank's overdraft protection program. That way, if it happens again, your purchase would be declined but at least you'd avoid the $29 fee.
It's also worth asking your bank for a courtesy refund. Point out that a $29 overdraft fee for $15 worth of gas is absurd.
Remember, pay-at-the-pump holds also occur with credit cards. That's usually not a big problem, though, unless you're very close to your credit limit.
Gerri also suggested looking into getting a pre-paid card. Check around, because the fees vary. You could load money onto the card, and when it's gone, it's gone – and you won't have any overdraft fees.
- The ABC News Fixer
Got a consumer problem? The ABC News Fixer may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.