Published: Friday, 21 Oct 2011 | 11:09 AM ET Text Size
By: Molly Tilghman and Sandra Block
The hullabaloo about Bank of America's decision to charge customers a monthly debit card fee has prompted many consumers to take a hard look at the cost of their bank accounts.
Here's the problem: Almost all bank websites will prominently disclose the fees they don't charge. Identifying the fees they do charge is much more difficult.
USA Today analyzed the cost of opening a basic checking account at the 10 largest banks and credit unions. In most cases, information about monthly maintenance fees, requirements to waive these fees, and the minimum needed to open an account are readily available on the institutions' websites. Other fees, such as the cost of taking a withdrawal from an out-of-network ATM or closing an account weren't prominently disclosed.
Searching for a List of Fees
To learn about these fees, consumers must dig up a "Schedule of Fees and Charges." This is where banks and credit unions compile a more detailed list of service fees that apply to their customers. Some financial institutions, such as the SunTrust Bank and Alliant Credit Union, featured a link to the fees on the main checking account page. This, however, was an anomaly. In some cases, we had to Google "Schedule of Fees," and the name of the bank or credit union. Even then, the schedule of fees isn't always comprehensive.
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Credit unions fared better than banks: With the exception of Security Service Federal, we found a schedule of fees on all their websites (although it sometimes took several clicks). We were also able to find a schedule of fees on websites for Bank of America [BAC 7.35 0.13 (+1.8%) ], Chase [JPM 36.69 -0.33 (-0.89%) ], SunTrust [STI 20.63 -0.38 (-1.81%) ] and Wells Fargo [WFC 27.08 0.01 (+0.04%) ].
With help from Google [GOOG 600.14 1.47 (+0.25%) ], we were able to find the fee schedule for PNC Bank [PNC 55.07 -0.90 (-1.61%) ] and U.S. Bank [USB 26.03 -0.19 (-0.72%) ].
But even the world's largest search engine couldn't unearth a fee schedule for HSBC, TD Bank, Citibank [C 34.16 -0.01 (-0.03%) ] and Capital One [COF 46.90 -0.17 (-0.36%) ]. To get their fee information, we had to email or call the banks.
Determined customers can search for information about fees in banks' official disclosure documents, but they'll need a lot of time and a couple of cups of coffee, too. An analysis of checking accounts for the 10 largest banks by the Pew Health Group found that the median length of their disclosure statements was 111 pages. None of the banks provided key information about fees on a single page, the study found.
"As a result," the study said, "consumers must navigate a confusing maze of disclosure documents in their efforts to locate all of the important account information."
This story first appeared in USA Today.