Banks cash in on forced overdrafts

Janet Babin Nov 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Be careful your generosity this holiday season doesn’t put your bank account in the red. Most of us will get into a little bit of debt. But keep an eye on how your bank cashes your checks and collects the overdraft fees. The methodology might have been thought up by Scrooge himself. Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.

JANET BABIN: When’s the last time you looked at your bank statement? Turns out most people don’t even reconcile their checking accounts.

Maybe that’s why so many of us don’t realize what USA Today found out about bank check-clearing policies. Reporter Kathy Chu says eight of the nation’s largest banks, including Wachovia and Bank of America, pay out your big checks first, even if they hit the bank later than smaller transactions:

KATHY CHU: They’re trying to get consumers to overdraft more often by clearing checks from largest to smallest dollar amount.

Say a check comes in for $100, $50 and $10, and you’ve got $140 dollars in your account. When the banks pay the largest check first, you’ll incur overdraft fees on two checks instead of one. Chu says banks will bring in more than $53 billion from these charges this year.

But John Hall with the American Bankers Association says if consumers don’t like the fees, they shouldn’t bounce checks:

JOHN HALL: Someone can make a mistake but that’s what the fee is for, it’s meant to be a bit of a sting so that you don’t do it again.”

Besides, Hall says most consumers prefer their largest charges to be paid first. Mike Moebs with Moebs Services says his research backs that up:

MIKE MOEBS: We went to over 200,000 households, and less than 4 percent wanted anything other than Pay my largest check first.

Because the big rent check is more important than that dry cleaning bill. Moebs suggests consumers read their bank service agreement and start reconciling their accounts.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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