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Archive for Friday, September 30, 2011

Bank of America debit fee is only the latest

September 30, 2011

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Angela Malerba, who works in public relations in Boston, carries a debit card because she likes to know when she buys something that she has enough in her account to pay for it. But paying $5 a month to use her own money? That’s too much.

So when Bank of America starts charging the fee next year, Malerba figures she’ll rely more heavily on her credit card. Or, in a strategy that seems almost quaint in these swipe-and-go times, she may just carry more cash.

“Paying $60 a year in debit card fees just seems absurd,” she says.

The 38.7 million people who carry Bank of America debit cards will face a similar decision in the latest example of banks raising fees or establishing new ones — not just for debit cards but for visiting ATMs or talking to a teller.

Bank of America’s announcement follows tests by Wells Fargo and Chase for $3 monthly fees for debit cards in some markets. Other banks have begun charging for basic checking. Banks have sharply restricted their rewards programs for debit cards.

Bank of America said the fee will apply only when customers use their debit cards for purchases in a certain month. The fee will not apply if the card is used only to access ATMs. It will not apply for premium customers, who keep high balances.

Debit fees hit particularly hard because banks have spent the past decade encouraging their customers to go for the ease of the cards, which deduct purchases immediately from a checking or savings account.

In 1995, debit cards accounted for only 1 percent of the transactions when people pulled a card out of their wallet to pay for something. Credit cards made up the rest.

Debit cards grew steadily, hitting 50 percent in 2006. Today, there are more than 530 million of them in use in the U.S. Two out of every three times someone reaches for plastic, it’s debit, according to the Nilson Report, which tracks the card industry.

Credit cards still make up 56 percent of the money spent, according to the report. So when people use debit, it’s for the forgettable, smaller transactions of everyday life — a pack of gum or a cup of coffee.

Banks have cashed in big. They collect about $19 billion a year from swipe fees, the pennies they collect from a store every time you run your card through a magnetic reader at the checkout counter.

On Saturday, that revenue will be cut almost in half. Federal rules will cap the amount banks can charge merchants at about 24 cents per transaction, down from an average of 44 cents.

It’s the latest regulation imposed on banks. Last year, strict rules on credit cards limited when they could raise interest rates and virtually eliminated customer fees for going over credit limits. Then the Federal Reserve tightened rules for when and how often banks could charge for checking account overdrafts.

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