By Quentin Fottrell
Bank fees have been steadily creeping up, but getting branches to disclose these fees as required by law remains a frustrating uphill battle for customers.
A survey of bank fees involving 392 bank branches has just been published, and the results are not pretty. Only 38% of bank branches complied easily with simple requests for fee schedules under the 20-year-old Truth In Savings Act, which requires disclosure of a schedule of account fees to prospective customers so they can compare them with other banks.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s 21-state report, Big Banks, Bigger Fees 2011, set out to discover how easy (or not) it was for consumers to shop around and whether bank branches comply with the Truth In Savings Act. The researchers discovered that “only after two or more requests” did 55% of branches provide fee schedules as requested and as required by the Act.
But here’s the worst part: similar to an earlier GAO study, nearly one-quarter or 23% of branches refused to comply at all. As a poor alternative, the survey says, “others provided often weighty piles of useless other brochures.” It recommends that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should not only enforce the law on disclosures, but require banks make fees “searchable” online. Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program direct for PIRG, says, “We often waited for up to half-an-hour and were often given the wrong information no matter how long we waited.”
The PIRG has a dramatic piece of advice for consumers. It obviously advises you to review your bank statements, shop around, look for better accounts etc., but it adds, “Bank at a credit union, not at a bank. Credit unions are member-owned, lower-cost alternatives to banks and often offer the same variety of services. It is easier to qualify for membership than most consumers think.”
Carol Kaplan, a spokesperson for the American Bankers Association, a non-profit industry trade group, said in a statement that the PIRG report did not take into account the time of day, the number of available personnel or other unforeseen circumstances. She added, “PIRG’s survey affirms what the GAO has already said: that most banks offer checking accounts with no fees.”
Does all of this controversy over fee disclosure give you a depressing sense of déjà vu? It should. Remember this 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office? It came to a similar conclusion as the PIRG report. GAO staff posing as customers visited 154 institutions and found that, despite disclosure requirements, they were unable to obtain detailed fee information and account terms at “over one-fifth of visited branches” or on many of the banks’ websites. In other words, very little has changed.
Have you had a similar experience?
(This story was updated to include comment from the American Bankers Association.)