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BOB MOON: Does this sound at all familiar? Banks being accused of making out like bandits — literally — by ripping off customers with excessive overdraft charges.
In this case, we're talking about banks in the United Kingdom. They had a bumper year in 2006. Four of the biggest just reported record profits — up a collective 20 percent over the year before.
Consumer groups are seeing red over more than $9 billion in bounced-check penalties. And they say hundreds of thousands of customers should get their money back. Marketplace's Stephen Beard has more from London.
STEPHEN BEARD: Something is stirring in Britain. A revolt has been brewing. The usually apathetic members of this island race are up in arms.
strong class="name">MARTIN LEWIS: We're seeing a real, genuine consumer revolution!
Martin Lewis is the rabble-rouser-in chief. Through his website, MoneySavingExpert.com, he's been whipping up the Brits into a lather over the banks and their charges for unauthorized overdrafts.
strong class="name">LEWIS: I believe what they're doing when it comes to bank penalty charges is unlawful, and unfair, and wrong. And everybody should get their money back.
People have downloaded more than a million documents from his website explaining how to claim back penalty charges.
Emma Bandey of the consumer organization, "Which," says the British banks have blundered. By stinging their customers everytime they drift — however marginally — into the red, they've broken British contract law.
strong class="name">EMMA BANDEY: The default charges that banks charge their customers can only be used to cover the costs the banks incur. We don't believe these charges are proportionate to the costs that the banks incur.
The banks usually charge A£35, or $70. Three or four times what it actually costs them to deal with an unauthorized overdraft.
And it gets worse. Take Chandrah Shah. The bank stopped one of his checks that would have bounced and they slapped on a penalty charge. But that charge triggered another one.
strong class="name">CHANDRAH SHAH: The bank will apply a charge of A£38. And by applying that charge, they would make you go overdrawn. And so they'll apply another charge on the same day of A£35.
Sally Barnes also fell victim to spiralling charges after her account had dipped only a few dollars into the red.
strong class="name">SALLY BARNES: Several months in a row, I'd get charged sort of $350. Maybe four months in a row. It was just ridiculous.
She admits she should have kept her account in credit. But the bank charges piled up.
strong class="name">BARNES: I feel like they were causing the spiral to take place. So, you know, it's quite a deliberately . . . deliberate way of them to make money out of their customers.
She has now successfully claimed back around $3,000 in unlawful charges. Some estimates suggest that the total reclaimed so far by British bank customers has hit $100 million.
But this is just the start, says Martin Lewis. Everyday, more people are downloading his "Get your money back guide."
strong class="name">LEWIS: Sixty, 70,000 a day. There is no sign of stopping. I predict by the end of the year at least 4 million will have been downloaded from my site alone to take on the banks. This is mass revolution.
The banks warn that all this could put Britain's free banking in jeopardy. Most banks don't charge for checking accounts if they're balanced.
Analysts say the anti-bank fervour sweeping Britain may be partly because they're making so much money. Anyway, money-lenders have been unpopular since Biblical times.
In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.