Several Virginia banks announced plans this week to charge fees for cashing noncustomers' checks, and their reasons for doing so are as varied as the charges.
Although the decisions to institute fee systems for check-cashing service may be based on different considerations, the desired effect is the same: to offset expenses and to widen the profit margin.
Washington-area banks generally refuse to cash checks for noncustomers unless a check presented to a teller is drawn on that bank.
The same held true at most Virginia banks until about a year ago. Now several Virginia bank officials say they will cash noncustomers' checks, but that fees are necessary to offset rising costs of handling checks.
Although that has been suggested as the basic reason, some officials say fees have been instituted to discourage noncustomers from increasing the workloads for tellers and bank officers.
"We observed that our lobbies were becoming more congested," recalled a spokeswoman for Norfolk-based Virginia National Bank. "We instituted the charge last year as an incentive for these people to do business with us and to give better service to our customers," she aded.
Virginia National began charging a $3-per-check fee last year to cash noncustomers' checks. However, after paying the fee, a noncustomer is given a coupon which he may redeem within 30 days by opening an account. The fee either is returned or credited to the new account.
Many of Virginia National's competitors among the state's larger banking institutions have decided to adopt a fee system, although not necessarily for the same reasons.
In fact, in some instances, the same bank has a different fee structure for different regions of the state.
Central Fidelity Banks, for example, refuses to cash checks for noncustomers in its Richmond branches and, therefore, charges no fees in that city.
However, at Central Fidelity offices in other parts of the state, fees are either $2 or $3 per check. "It's more of a problem in some areas than it is in others," explained a spokesman.
About a year ago, First & Merchants Corp. officials in six of the 10 regions where the bank holding company has offices began charging noncustomers check-cashing fees of between $1 and $4. Management decided to adopt a uniform policy this year for all 10 regions.
Under the new First & Merchants policy, the charge for cashing a government check is $1 at all branches except at the Pentagon branch, where no fee is required.
The decision by competitors to charge for cashing checks "sort of caught us by surprise," acknowledged S. Joseph Ward, a vice president at Richmond-based Bank of Virginia.
Although it's not certain that Bank of Virginia will begin charging fees, Ward agrees that cashing checks for noncustomers adds to a bank's expenses.
"Legally and technically, a noncustomer is getting a loan, and there's nothing to back it" if his check is cashed, Ward explained.
"It's a service that doesn't make any sense. You have to advance them cash, and there's nothing in our system to back it up."
Ward believes the addition of fees for various bank services "will be the trend of our times." And he attributes that, in part, to consumerism, "a tremendous movement . . . which pushed for" and helped win approval for new retail services such as interest-bearing checking accounts.
A spokesman for the American Bankers Association is reluctant to say there is a trend toward tacking on more fees for consumer services but, he acknowledged, "It's happening more. As spreads get thinner because of competition, to maintain income and profitability you have to charge appropriate fees for the services you offer."
The president of a Northern Virginia bank put it in blunter terms in a recent interview with Newhouse News Service.
"A lot of consumers think banks are like quasi-government agencies, as if we were there to provide free services," Newhouse quotes the official as saying. "The consumers don't think of banks as businesses--which they definitely are."