Fee-Range Turkeys

Banks gobble up your money through extra charges.

When Donna DiFiore, owner of Delectables Restaurant and Catering on Fourth Avenue, writes out a payroll check for 28-year-old Brett Boyce, an employee, Boyce takes the check to Bank of America where DiFiore does her banking, because he has no account of his own. Yet, even though he has adequate identification, Bank of America routinely charges Boyce and two other DiFiore employees $3 to cash their payroll checks. At the same time, the bank charges DiFiore 13 cents per check and $12 a month for a payroll checking account.

For DiFiore, the $3 charge was the straw that broke the back of her patience. She wrote to Dean Kelly, a bank officer, "Using August 2001, as an example, Bank of America charged Delectables $281.46 for its banking services. I find it very petty and greedy of your employer to want more.

"In today's market," she continued, "I would also think that Bank of America would be focused on customer service to their clients."

DiFiore ought to think again. Customer service is well down on the banking industry's list of priorities. However, profits are another matter. American banks make an estimated $20 billion a year on fees they charge for "services," not including surcharges for use of ATMs.

Kelly, the bank official, told DiFiore he would investigate her complaint and "see if anything could be remedied or dealt with," she said. "It was something they were bringing to the attention of management." So far, though, the bank has not eliminated the fee for cashing her employees' checks.

For those who do not operate a small business as DiFiore does, it may come as a surprise that a bank would charge nearly $300 for a month's services. But DiFiore described a list of what she pays to Bank of America for the privilege of being its customer: "They charge me $12 a month just to do what they call 'maintain' my account. That's $24 a month for operating and payroll accounts. If a customer gives me a check for lunch, I have to pay eight and a half cents to deposit that check as well. Every time a check I have written is cashed, it costs me 13 cents. They charge me to buy coin change. Eight dollars monthly, regardless of the amount." Of course, it also costs her from 2 to 3.5 percent per transaction to process the restaurant's credit card payments.

THERE WAS A TIME when bankers sat behind their lobby desks looking avuncular. And one country-music song tells of a hard-working farmer whose relationship with his banker was so full of trust he could borrow money "simply on his word." That was when banks were performing services.

Now, services are "products," and bankers are more like used-car salesmen. For example, if you cannot meet the requirements for a minimum balance in a regular checking account, you must pay the bank, on average, $228 a year for service fees, account fees and ATM fees, according to a November report by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). "Banks have devised a three-part strategy to gouge consumers," says PIRG. "They raise existing fees, invent new ones and make it harder to avoid fees, by raising minimum balance requirements, so more people pay more fees. And, even though banks have raised the interest we pay them on our credit cards dramatically, they haven't significantly increased the interest they pay us on deposits."

"More and higher bank fees have left at least 12 million American families unable to afford bank accounts," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate for U.S. PIRG.

DiFiore's employee Brett Boyce is one of those 12 million. "By the time I pay rent and bills I don't have that much money to manage," he says. "It's not that big a deal for me not to have a bank account. I get paid every two weeks and if my rent is coming up I try to pull out $75 or $100 [in cash] and keep it in a separate pocket in my wallet. I go to the grocery store and pay cash. I don't have a car. I just bought a new bicycle and I had to pay for that. I don't have any other regular expenses. I don't have any bills in my name right now. I haven't had for almost five years now. I haven't had a car in three and a half years. I think there are way too many cars. I travel by bike or bus if I need to. Also hitch-hiking."

Ironically, the bank tellers who levy the $3 charge for cashing Boyce's paychecks are probably being paid at much the same level as he. Occupational statistics indicate that, in 1998, U.S. bank tellers were paid from $14,660 to $20,180 per year. Tucson tellers are probably in the $15,000-$16,000 range. For a 40-hour week, that works out to about $7.50 an hour.

Unfortunately for consumers, there are few alternatives. PIRG urges us to shop for financial services: "This should be an ongoing process because banks are constantly changing their fee structures. Compare the costs of your accounts to those of other banks in your area." Also, it suggests banking at a credit union instead of a bank. "Because credit unions are owned by their members and don't care to gouge them, their fees are generally lower than bank fees." There are 43 credit union branches in Tucson, ranging from American Airlines Federal Credit Union to Tucson Telco Federal Credit Union. Check them for membership eligibility.

American banks have been consolidating at a rapid rate. Forbes magazine reported that the number of banks dropped from 14,451 in 1982 to 9,451 in 1997. But their tentacles reached out farther, with the number of bank branches increasing from about 40,000 to 58,000.

Independent banks--that is, banks not owned or controlled by a multistate corporation--are few and far between. In fact, Tucson has only one. Canyon Community Bank, 7981 North Oracle Road (near Magee), open since October 2000, is 80-percent owned by Tucson stockholders. All its board members are local. It has nine employees. Local control makes a difference to customers who want to borrow money from Canyon Community. Loan decisions are made by officers on the bank's premises, rather than by executives in Phoenix, Dallas or New York.

Multistate banks are intensely driven by fees, whereas Canyon Community derives its revenue from interest on loans. That means it does not charge a fee for cashing checks written on accounts in the bank. And it charges no fees for non-profit organizations' bank accounts or accounts held by senior citizens.

Its motive is to generate deposits. "We depend on that to make money [rather than fees]," said Steve Halverson, the bank's president. "I am not going to say we don't have fees, because we do. We charge for cashier's checks and stop payments and that kind of stuff. But overall we are not fee hungry like Bank of America or Wells Fargo."

And, in a tradition that has long gone out of style, Canyon Community Bank's telephone is answered by a pleasant human being, not a recorded voice backed up by an incomprehensible menu.

Now, that's a bank!

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