Exclusive: Check Fees, ATM Charges, Monthly Service Fees Hit Record Highs

Study: Bounced check fees on the rise, ATM surcharge fees doubled in 10 years.

ByELISABETH LEAMY, VANESSA WEBER and SUZAN CLARKE via via logo
September 28, 2009, 6:30 PM

Sept. 30, 2009— -- Bounced-check fees, ATM surcharges and monthly checking account service charges have soared to record highs, according to a Bankrate.com study released today in an exclusive story on "Good Morning America."

In a growing trend, bounced-check fees increased 2.1 percent to an average of $29.58 -- and that's just the cost of the first bounced check.

"Banks have become reliant on fee income as a way to diversify their revenue over the last decade or so," said Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "That strategy is paying dividends, but it's coming at the cost to consumers who don't have good financial habits."

In the August survey of large, small and online banking institutions across the nation, Bankrate.com found that 26 percent of banks used a tiered structure to impose progressively higher fees for multiple overdrafts during a 12-month period. The average climbs to nearly $34 for the second, third and fourth bounced checks.

If a bank lets your overcharge go through, you'll pay a penalty for that too.

Many bank customers are enrolled in overdraft protection without their knowledge. They expect that a debit card purchase or ATM withdrawal won't go through if they are out of funds, but instead, the bank lets it go through and charges a fee.

Jory Walker is convinced that his bank purposefully processed his large rent check first so that several smaller charges would be overdrafts and the bank would earn additional fees.

Walker says his six overdrafts were for small amounts, such as $1.15 for a pack of gum. But because each overdraft fee was $32, the bank charged him a total of $192.

"I definitely thought they were taking advantage of the situation. As a small starting-out family with our daughter, $200 at that time for us, that was a big hit," Walker said.

Last week, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase vowed to change their overdraft policies because of consumer and Congressional outrage.

ATM Fees

ATM surcharges for using another bank's ATM have increased 7 percent per year since 1999, when the average fee was at $1.12. Fees are now a record $2.22, the report also said.

"When it comes to ATM fees, it's important to limit your withdrawals to your own bank's network of ATMs. Go outside that network, you typically pay not one, but two fees together that can add up," McBride said.

Other findings include that the average monthly service charge on interest-bearing checking accounts is up from $11.97 last year to $12.55 this year, representing an increase of nearly 5 percent.

Also, for interest-bearing checking accounts, the average opening balance requirement increased from $376.75 to $473.12.

The survey also found that charges and interest rates at online banks are almost comparable to those of traditional banks.

Interest-earning checking accounts at online banks must be opened with a higher average balance -- $681.50 -- than required by traditional banks, but they offer better yields, lower balance requirements and lower monthly fees.

Online account holders aren't immune to escalating fees. Bounced-check charges at online banks increased to $29.78, and the average ATM surcharge fee rose to $1.88.

ABCNews.com's Alice Gomstyn and Lee Ferran contributed to this story.

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