Two consumer groups have issued separate reports on the steep charges that many consumers are hit with for overdrawing their bank accounts.
Banks have long charged customers for slip-ups such as bouncing checks. But there's a newer outrage: Banks are assessing penalty fees when their own electronic systems allow consumers to make purchases with their debit or ATM card, even though the account holder doesn't have the funds to back up the purchases.
Overdraft penalties are assessed when a financial institution covers a check, ATM withdrawal or debit card transaction. When a customer finally makes a deposit, the bank takes the overdraft amount plus a fee, typically $20 to $35.
The Federal Reserve does not require institutions to consider overdraft programs as extensions of credit, and therefore the banks don't have to disclose that they are charging what amounts to high interest rates for them, argues the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending in a new report, "High Cost and Hidden From View: The $10 Billion Overdraft Loan Market."
Overdraft fees often result in consumers being charged as much at 1,000 percent interest, according to the report.
For example, the center points out that if an overdraft fee were calculated as an annual percentage rate, or APR, a $22.50 fee for an $80 overdraft translates into a 1,467 percent APR if the consumer reconciled the overdraft in a week's time. (Just so you know, APR represents the cost of credit on a yearly basis expressed as a percentage.) The Consumer Federation of America also issued a report that was critical of the practice of banks offering "courtesy" overdraft protection.
Twenty-seven of the 33 large institutions surveyed by CFA have these overdraft policies that say the bank, at its discretion, will allow depositors to overdraw their accounts at an ATM, point-of-sale debit transaction or for automated or scheduled electronic payments.
Traditionally, only a bank's best customers enjoyed the courtesy protection. More recently, banks have automated the process, allowing a wider range of customers to overdraw their accounts, making it more fair and consistent, according to Tracey Mills, senior manager for public relations at the American Bankers Association.
"Keep in mind, unlike a loan, the bank is not guaranteeing that a transaction overdrawing an account will be paid," Mills said.
It's not the overdraft protection that bothers consumer advocacy groups. It's the fact that many of these bank consumers aren't aware that they are being charged when electronic transactions resulting in an overdraft are approved.
With today's technological advances, financial institutions aren't just being nice when they allow people to overdraw their account via an electronic transaction. Being nice -- customer-friendly -- would be to give people a warning that they don't have enough money in their account before processing a transaction. Being profit-driven is what these transactions are all about. Overdraft fees are lucrative for financial institutions.
In one example cited in the Center for Responsible Lending report, a consumer was charged $300 in overdraft fees for $239 worth of purchases. All the electronic debit payments were allowed by the man's bank as a courtesy.
This kind of "courtesy" is like someone holding the door open for you knowing there's a deep trench filled with water on the other side.
"Large banks are increasingly allowing consumers to unwittingly overdraw their accounts and then hit them with hidden fees," said Jean Ann Fox, the CFA's director of consumer protection.
The CFA and the Center for Responsible Lending want federal regulators to require financial institutions to warn consumers when ATM and debit card transactions would overdraw their accounts and trigger fees. The consumer advocacy groups argue that with such a warning, people could be given the option to cancel such transactions and save themselves a lot of money.
I agree that overdraft fees are outrageously high and that financial institutions should be forced to inform people when they are about to overdraw. That would indicate the banks are committed to customer service.
However, many customers aren't innocent victims of the big bad bank.
"Overdraft fees can easily be avoided by keeping track of transactions," Mills said.
And Mills is right. Banks are clearly profiting from people's bad banking behavior. But with online banking, telephone banking and a proliferation of ATMs, there's little reason to be hit with an overdraft fee.
"Penalty fees for overdrawing an account are like parking tickets," Mills said. "They are meant to be a deterrent. Unpaid overdrafts are a liability for banks. The second most common type of check fraud is from overdrafts that bank customers never pay."
I understand there are times when you may overdraw your bank account -- you rushed out of town for your vacation and forgot to make a deposit (happened to me). In such cases, if you've been a good bank customer -- as in you don't have a history of writing bad checks or serial overdrawing of your account -- you usually can get your bank to waive any overdraft fees.
But don't whine when you're charged a fee and you know you haven't been keeping track of your own money.
Lorraine Denis-Cooper contributed to this column.
* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.
* By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
* By e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.