Business

Debit card fees have customers seeking out credit unions

Posted October 5, 2011 9:01 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2011 5:42 a.m. EDT

— Dontarius Dawkins is on a tight budget and says it will be even tighter when he has to start paying $5 a month to use his Bank of America debit card.

"Five dollars adds up every month, considering I’m a college student, so I really don’t have $5 a month to pay"” Dawkins said Wednesday.

Bank of America announced late last month that it plans to start charging debit card users a monthly fee starting early next year.

The move comes as new laws cut the fee banks can charge merchants for debit transactions.

Anne Pace, a Bank of America Corp. spokeswoman, said that customers will only be charged the fee if they use their debit cards for purchases in any given month. Customers won't be charged if they only use their cards at an ATM.

The fee will apply to basic accounts and will be in addition to any existing monthly service fees. For example, one of the bank's basic accounts charges a $12 monthly fee unless customers meet certain conditions, such as maintaining a minimum average balance of $1,500.

A fee for using debit cards is still a novel concept for many consumers and was unheard of before this year, but there are signs it may soon become an industry norm.

SunTrust, a regional bank based in Atlanta, began charging a $5 debit card fee on its basic checking accounts this summer. Regions Financial, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., plans to start charging a $4 fee next month.

Chase and Wells Fargo are also testing $3 monthly debit card fees in select markets. Neither bank has said when it will make a final decision on whether to roll out the fee more broadly.

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller told WFMY News that the fees should be illegal. In response, he has proposed the Freedom and Mobility in Banking Act, which would give customers the right to close an account at any time, even over the phone or the Internet, at no charge.

Due to the fee, Roger Goodwin is considering leaving Bank of America and getting an account with a local credit union.

"They do not have fees, and I also have an account with another bank that is also going to start charging for checking," Goodwin said.

Leigh Brady with the North Carolina State Employees' Credit Union, said the company has seen an increase in new accounts in the last week, which might be a result from Bank of America and others charging new debit fees.

"As a credit union, we are not in the business to make money. We are a not-for-profit cooperative," Brady said. "Credit unions tend to be a better value for consumers … in terms of offering lower fees and better interest rates."

Coastal Federal Credit Union said it has also seen increased interest, and the company plans to lure in frustrated Bank of America customers by rewarding them with a higher interest rate on checking accounts.