Who is protected on overdrafts?
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 3:14 p.m.
Who's the greater villain: the guy at a bar who has one drink too many or the bartender who sold him that drink?
If you think there's enough blame to go around, you'll agree there are two wrongs and two rights on the controversy surrounding bank overdraft protection fees.
It's wrong for financial institutions to prey - and that is what they are doing - on the carelessness of their customers.
It's also wrong for customers to complain about overdraft fees that they can largely avoid.
Financial institutions are right when they argue they are providing a service customers clearly want or otherwise they wouldn't use it.
But government has every right to rein in an industry practice that in many cases has become predatory by design, allowing customers to overdraw their accounts.
No matter who you think is right or wrong on this issue, I must point out a troubling trend that just won't die: The financial industry continues to greatly profit from consumers' love affair with plastic.
Much of the overdraft penalties come from debit card transactions. In less than 15 years, debit card transactions in the United States have grown from 1 percent of noncash transactions to more than 50 percent, according to new research from TowerGroup.
As access to credit tightened and people pulled back from using credit cards, they increased their debit card use.
Because debit cards are linked to individuals' banking accounts, customers supposedly are forced to spend only what they have in their accounts. The financial institutions have actually convinced some people that a debit card is the same as using cash.
And it's not because the institutions allow you to spend more than you have. Most banks whose automated overdraft programs cover ATM and point-of-sale debit transactions only inform customers they don't have sufficient funds once a transaction had been completed, according to a 2008 study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Overdraft penalties are assessed when a financial institution covers a check, ATM withdrawal or debit card transaction. When the customer eventually makes a sufficient deposit, the bank takes the overdraft amount plus a fee.
Unmonitored, the ease of using a debit card allows people to spend first and check later. Even a transaction costing a few dollars can trigger overdraft fees, which can be as high as $35.
The national median for overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, debit cards and ATMs has increased to $26 per incident in 2009, up from $25 in 2008, according to Moebs Services, an economic research firm based in Lake Bluff, Ill. The firm collects and analyzes pricing trends for government agencies such as the Federal Reserve and the Government Accountability Office.
You can always opt out of overdraft protection or change your bank if it doesn't give you such an option.
"This is the first time in our 22-year history of collecting this data that we have seen (overdraft) fees increase during a recession," said chief executive Mike Moebs.
Clearly, people should be more responsible. But once again, financial services institutions have crossed the line of fairness. And to be honest, the federal government has helped.
The federal agencies that regulate the industry determined several years ago that overdraft protection programs were not extensions of credit, a ruling that was ridiculous.
Overdraft protection is most certainly the extension of credit. So let's call it what it is and put in some stronger consumer protections.
Financial institutions should get specific consent before signing up a customer for overdraft protection.
Consumers should be given an opportunity at every single point of sale to decline a purchase or cancel an ATM withdrawal if they don't have enough money in their account (even if they've consented to overdraft protection).
These are easy and fair fixes. Some major banks have already taken the step to change their overdraft policies. More will need to be legislatively pushed to do the right thing.
Consumers are just looking for a safe, easy, convenient way to handle their purchases.
Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email@example.com. Listen to Singletary discuss personal finance every Tuesday on NPR's ''Day to Day.'' To hear her reports online go to www.npr.org.
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