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Banks Mull ‘Stealth’ Fees

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Given the fallout from Bank of America’s introduction of a $5 monthly charge for the privilege of shopping with a debit card, experts say it’s not surprising other big banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase now insist they won’t be following suit. But rather than eat the lost revenue from the recent 50% reduction in surcharges merchants pay for debit card purchases, some say banks will just find new and creative ways to impose costs on consumers.

Already this year, banks have made checking more expensive. While 65% of checking accounts last year didn’t have monthly fees, less than half can claim that this year, according to a 2011 study from Bankrate.com.  And experts say we can expect more than just an increase in monthly checking account charges going forward.  “We’re going to see more creative, stealth-like fees,” says Dennis Moroney, research director at TowerGroup.

Among the fees some banks will likely levy or raise going forward: inactivity fees on debit cards (so you’ll pay if you don’t use the card at least a few times each month), fees for getting a paper statement or to speak to an agent and more punitive fees like a higher charge for bounced checks, he says.  What’s more, banks will likely eliminate debit card rewards programs, says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com. “We’ve already seen a 30% decline in those programs over the past year,” he says. “We’ll see more of that.”

These kinds of fees may anger consumers, experts say. “In this economy, every dollar counts,” says McBride.  “A lot of people won’t stand for these kinds of charges — they know better alternatives exist.” We’re already seeing evidence of this: Nearly 9% of consumers said they had switched banks in the last year, compared to 7.7% the previous year, according to the 2011 U.S. Retail Bank New Account Study by J.D. Power and Associates.

One of the best ways to avoid pricey checking is to opt for a smaller bank, credit union or online bank, says Tim Chen, CEO of NerdWallet.com. More than three in four credit unions have free stand-alone checking accounts, compared to just 45% of bigger banks, a Bankrate.com survey finds.  One of the reasons for this is that many of these smaller institutions (since they have assets of less than $10 billion) were not subject to a recent regulation that slashed by half the amount banks could charge retailers each time a consumer swiped his debit card at the store, says Brooke Firchow, a spokesperson for CheckingFinder.com, a site that lists checking account offers and terms. “This was a big source of revenue for big banks, and now they’re trying to make it up in fees,” she says.  You can find credit unions in your area at NCOA.org, and Bankrate.com offers a list of low-fee banks.

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