The Color of Money: Overdraft 'Protection' Is Anything But

Median overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, debit cards and ATMs have increased to $26 per incident.
Median overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, debit cards and ATMs have increased to $26 per incident. (By Daniel Acker -- Bloomberg)
By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Who's the greater villain: the guy at a bar who has one drink too many or the bartender who sold him that drink?

If you think there's enough blame to go around, you'll agree there are two wrongs and two rights on the controversy surrounding bank overdraft protection fees.

It's wrong for financial institutions to prey -- and that is what they are doing -- on the carelessness of their customers.

It's also wrong for customers to complain about overdraft fees that they can largely avoid -- by keeping track of what's in their accounts and not overspending.

Financial institutions are right when they argue that they are providing a service customers clearly want or otherwise they wouldn't use it.

But government has every right to rein in an industry practice that in many cases has become predatory by design, allowing customers to overdraw their accounts.

No matter which side you think is right or wrong on this issue, I must point out a troubling trend that just won't die: The financial industry continues to greatly profit from consumers' love affair with plastic.

Many of the overdraft penalties come from debit card transactions. In less than 15 years, debit card transactions in the United States have grown from 1 percent of noncash transactions to more than 50 percent, according to new research from TowerGroup.

As access to credit tightened and people pulled back from using credit cards, they used their debit cards more.

Because debit cards are linked to individuals' banking accounts, customers supposedly are forced to spend only what they have in their accounts. The financial institutions have actually convinced some people that using a debit card is the same as using cash.

It's not.

And it's not because the institutions allow you to spend -- either mistakenly or irresponsibly -- more than you have.

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