SmartMoney Blogs

Pay Dirt
A daily look at what we buy, how we spend, and the companies that do right - and wrong - by their customers.

Bank Fee Disclosures? It’s (Still) Complicated

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.

Getty Images

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.)


We welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Please comply with our guidelines. Our blogs do not require the use of your real name.

Comments (5 of 7)

View all Comments »
    • people should carry iunarsnce instead of trying to put 3% of their income for retirement We have so many unfunded pensions now. Will that be another bailout later. If we lower the retirement age and require people to work 40 hrs a week for 40 years and they know they will be able to draw social security at an early age they will manage their money so they have some to enjoy their dreams after work.

    • Simple answer. Require that they continue in business and for some lengthy period of time charge no fees for the services where fee disclosure was not adequate.

    • What a joke the debate about Bank Fee Disclosure and new reforms are. It is akin to going outside in the rain with an umbrella full of holes , or in other words the enormous financial abuses Consumers are subjected to daily are not being addressed at all while discussions that merely allow Banks and the Government to appear to be doing the right thing are smoke and mirrors.

      At the same time our Government has allowed below prime lenders like Wells Fargo to expand and take over mainstream Lenders Consumers are raped with onerous and unnecessarily high ATM Fees, unavoidable and expensive Overdraft Fees, unexplainable delays in crediting deposits and do not earn fair interest on their deposits .

      The financial abuse that is allowed by our Government is one of the biggest scandals in America .

    • Now my bank charges $3 for me to view a deposit or cleared check on line. Funny though they charge me $1 if I order a copy.

    • Talk about failure to disclose! The article left out a few key facts.
      The GAO study the article cites considered fee schedules unavailable if the tester had to wait more than 10 minutes! A fact hidden in footnote 8 on page 4 at http://www.gao.gov/browse/topic/Business_Regulation_and_Consumer_Protection/Consumer_protection/

      You can’t get fast food that quickly. It is an arbitrary and unfair standard for measuring whether something is available.
      It is not always possible to display brochures for all of the many different credit and deposit accounts along with other important information (warnings about check fraud, identify theft) and the endess information the government requires to be disclosed at every branch (e.g.,equal opportunity lender, FDIC insured, when money from deposits will be available etc.) especially in small branches. And yes, someone might have to wait in a small branch while the sole employee assists another customer. (US PIRG said it used the same metholody as GAO. which raises questions about its methodology.)

      The story missed the more sensational news — the vast majority of banks offer free accounts. Now that is great news for consumers — but would require saying something positive about banks.

      I work for the American Bankers Association


About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.