The Federal Reserve today announced new rules that will ban banks from charging overdraft fees on debit card and ATM transactions unless a consumer opts in to an overdraft program.
"The final overdraft rules represent an important step forward in consumer protection," Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a statement. "Both new and existing account holders will be able to make informed decisions about whether to sign up for an overdraft service."
Overdraft fees can result in consumers being charged up to $35 for withdrawing more money than they have in their accounts. Under the Fed's rules, all consumers -- including existing account-holders -- would have the choice to sign up for overdraft services.
If customers choose to opt out of the overdraft programs, purchases for dollar amounts greater than their account balances will be denied.
The rules do not apply to overdrafts incurred by checks. The Fed conducted testing that showed that most consumers want coverage for checks but do not want to be enrolled in overdraft programs for debit card and ATM transactions.
The new rules will take effect on July 1.
The Fed's actions come as the central bank fights to maintain its consumer protection responsibilities.
Earlier this week Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee unveiled draft legislation that would strip the Fed of many consumer protection duties and create a new agency to handle these issues.
Fed officials today denied that the recent events on Capitol Hill have influenced the introduction of these new rules.
Both the Fed and Congress have taken aim at banks charging overdraft fees without consumers first having the option to participate in such a program.
Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase Announce Overdraft Opt-Outs
At an Oct. 30 hearing, Rep. Carolyn Maloney , D-N.Y., who has introduced a bill in the House that would ban banks from charging more than one overdraft fee a month or six a year, said, "How is this action any different from Burger King charging you for a hamburger you don't even want? That would be highway robbery. Isn't it better to let consumers make a choice about what product they want?"
At the hearing last month, Nessa Feddis of the American Bankers Association told lawmakers that the industry opposes the measure.
In recent months both House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Senate Banking Committee Chair Chris Dodd, D-Conn., have expressed support for the opt-in choice for overdraft programs.
A number of banks such as Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase have already announced that they will allow consumers to opt out of these programs.
An estimated 50 million people overdraw their bank accounts every year, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. In 2008, consumers spent nearly $24 billion on overdraft fees, a 35 percent increase from 2006.