BofA Site Problems Persist; Customers Petition Company

BofA site problems continue; an online petition hopes to send banks a message.

October 4, 2011, 2:48 PM

Oct. 5, 2011 — -- For six consecutive days, Bank of America's website has experienced disruptions, delaying customer access to its website and raising concerns that it may have been hacked.

The company has said the problem is not related to hacking or the announcement last week that it will charge a $5 monthly debit card purchase fee.

Cyber security experts counter the only explanation for outages on several consecutive days is a so-called denial of service attack.

Denial of service attacks occur when a site is inundated with an enormous number of apparently legitimate requests, which could explain why the site's homepage alone seems to be suffering the brunt of the disruptions.

"The only reasonable conclusion is that they are under attack," Steve Gibson, internet security expert, said. "A site of that size should be expected to handle huge volume with no trouble at all…the only time we ever see anything like this is when some major site has upset a group of hackers."

Bank of America is dealing with sporadic site problems since Friday, including four business days, as well as backlash from the debit card fee announcement.

Molly Katchpole launched a petition against Bank of America, which was signed by more than 131,000 customers and counting, saying she would take her business elsewhere unless the company drops its plan to charge $5 for debit card purchases. She wants her message to ring loud and clear, especially to other banks.

She said the petioners are not interested in hearing the bank's reasons for the proposed increase: regulation and economics.

"The average Bank of America customer is not up to date on the latest regulatory news. They're looking at the fee, and they're angry," she said.

The petition, called "Tell Bank of America: No $5 Debit Card Fees," states, "When the recession first hit, we gave Bank of America billions of dollars in bailout money. Our reward is higher fees for the same services. At some point, we've got to say enough is enough."

Bank of America was one of eight large banks that received an initial round of funding from the Treasury Department as a result of the financial crisis. The bank received $45 billion and returned the funds in December 2009.

Katchpole, 22, said she launched the petition last Friday after hearing about Bank of America's plan to add the $5 fee. She created an online petition, her first, on the free community campaign site because she'd signed previous petitions there.

Bank of America did not return a call from requesting comment about the petition.

Katchpole, a recent graduate of Roger Williams University, works two part-time jobs -- freelance work for a communications firm and babysitting -- while she looks for full-time work in Washington, D.C. She said she feels most comfortable using a debit card for her purchases and is trying to be "responsible" with her finances. The closest ATM is two subway stops away from her apartment, which she says brings the added burden of a $2 fare.

Katchpole said she plans to close her Bank of America account but is committed to the petition because she hopes it will deter other banks from instituting similar fees.

Chase and Wells Fargo are testing $3 fees in limited markets, although many banks said they are not planning to charge debit card fees nationwide. Citibank, however, said it would charge $20 for certain mid-tier checking accounts unless a customer has more than $15,000 combined in Citi accounts, according to the Associated Press.

Lori Hoyt, owner of a California Closets franchise in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she signed the petition because she would prefer to keep her business and personal accounts with Bank of America. Hoyt said consumers should not be punished for "errors in the banking industry."

Bank of America has been struggling with a pile of bad mortgages, mostly through its acquisiton of Countrywide, and a declining stock price.

"I just don't think it's my fault they gave bad loans," Hoyt, 55, said. Hoyt said she has had a small business account with the bank for 30 years and a personal account for 17 years.

"I have a lot of money in my accounts. Interest rates are so low, and they're going to charge me for using a debit card?" Hoyt said. "I don't think it makes business sense, and I think Bank of America will lose a lot of customers."

Hoyt said she is willing to "stay and work with the bank" but not if it charges a $5 debit card purchase fee.

"If they increase their interest rate, maybe I'll stay," she said.

Maria Aspan, consumer finance editor with the newspaper American Banker, said the banks are acting in response to the Durbin Amendment, which limits the fees banks can collect from merchants for debit card purchases to 21 cents from an average of 44 cents. The Durbin Amendment has a higher cap for a merchant's transaction fee for extra services, such as fraud settlement, which is 24 cents.

Banks are also charging higher fees because of changing rules that force them to ask customers to opt in if they want overdraft protection, another previous revenue generator.

Aspan acknowledged that "$3 to $5 is a far cry from 24 cents, or even 44 cents." Customers who use their debit card for purchases 15 times a month at a rate of 21 cents in transaction fees could recoup $3.15 of the revenue a bank would have received from merchants.

A banking survey from the Federal Reserve from June found that the average, or mean, per respondent of total processing costs for all types of debit card transactions, including those on prepaid cards, was 17 cents. That 17 cents does not include fraud settlement or other services.

Apsan also said banks may be indirectly encouraging customers to not use their debit card and instead use their credit cards, which charge merchants a higher, unregulated interchange fee.

Customers have expressed frustration over the company's website problems as well.

Holly Ryan, a food purchasing service director in Massachusetts, said Bank of America's website problems delayed her mortgage payment, which was due Saturday, by four days. Ryan is not a Bank of America customer, but the bank bought her mortgage from her previous mortgage broker.

"I usually pay it the last day of month or day it's due," Ryan said. "That's why I was upset because I've always been on time."

Lynn Roberts, a Bank of America customer and owner of Globotext, a business based in southern Florida that translates news and business documents, said she was late in paying her employees, as first reported by the Charlotte Observer, because of the site's loading problems

Globotext has about 90 people employed worldwide, and Roberts said she had difficulty transferring payments to them because of the website's delays, which made her "furious."

While Roberts had not heard of the petition, she is considering whether she should take her business elsewhere.

"We work on a lot of deadlines, and we expect we should meet our deadlines as well. That was quite alarming to us," she said.

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