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Banks quietly continue to add fees

Published: March 2, 2012 | 9:00 am
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Despite a recent backlash, the big institutions continue to ding customers

NEW YORK — Big banks, facing declining revenues and a regulatory climate that leaves them fewer creative ways to make money, are quietly introducing or experimenting with fees that are sure to outrage customers.

Bank of America was shouted down by angry customers last fall when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee for using a debit card. JPMor­gan Chase and Wells Fargo backed off plans to impose their own fees. But the major banks have imposed or are testing other fees:

Since November, Wells Fargo has charged $15 a month for some checking accounts unless customers have three accounts with the bank, maintain a minimum balance of $7,500 or have a Wells Fargo mortgage.

Some Citibank customers are being charged $20 a month unless they keep $15,000 in their accounts, up from $6,000 before December. They’re also being dinged with a $2 fee for using non-Citi ATMs if their balance falls below the minimum.

Bank of America, even after a backlash last fall when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee for debit card transactions, is testing a menu of checking accounts in Georgia, Massachusetts and Arizona with monthly fees of $6 to $25.

“Banks have a short-term memory,” says Norma Garcia, senior attorney at Consumers Union. “These fees affect all consumers, but particularly impact the most vulnerable, who have the least capacity to meet minimum balances and avoid the fees.”

Until 2009, all of the largest banks in the United States offered free checking with no strings attached. Today, almost none do, says Mike Moebs, the founder of Moebs Services, a financial research company.

And what wasn’t free before costs a lot more these days: Moebs’ research shows that cashiers’ checks that used to cost $3 now cost as much as $12, and the cost to get money orders has doubled to $2 at the largest banks.

The big banks are public companies and are expected to make a profit. And it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Historically, banks have made money off something called interest rate spreads. They borrowed money cheaply, loaned it out at higher interest rates and pocketed the difference. But interest rates are at historic lows, making it harder for banks to charge high rates when they lend and squeezing their profits.

Rules since 2009 have also curtailed traditional bank fees, costing them billions of dollars.

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