Small banks are not much better than big banks when it comes to the fees they charge customers who spend more than they have in their accounts.
That is the finding of a new report published last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which used "secret shoppers" to request information from 45 smaller banks from across the country, to examine their overdraft practices and penalty fees.
The findings are not surprising, said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. "Some smaller banks are far more addicted to overdraft fees than bigger banks," she said.
Pew's consumer finance project has studied overdraft practices at large banks for several years. This year's report, also published last week, found that most big banks continue to charge high fees, and often charge multiple fees, when customers overdraft. Overdraft and related fees have more than doubled over the past 30 years, Pew said, while bank income from charging interest has fallen.
This year, Pew also studied a group of smaller banks, which offered a snapshot of bank practices. While the sample did not represent a cross section of small banks across the country, Pew said, the findings highlight "common" practices at many banks.
The study found that the typical overdraft fee at a small bank was $32, which is not much lower than the $35 charged by big banks. All 45 of the smaller banks allow customers to run up fees of at least $90 each day, and many permit accumulation of much higher daily totals, the analysis found.
On the plus side, the smaller banks were less likely to reorder a customer's debits in order of the largest amount to the smallest — a practice that tends to increase the number of overdraft fees the bank can charge.
Historically, said Joy Hackenbracht, a research officer with the consumer banking project, overdraft coverage was considered a "courtesy" extended to customers occasionally, such as when a customer bounced a check. But as debit card and ATM transactions became the norm, overdraft fees became more common.
"The existing protections are not working," Hackenbracht said. "There is a better way to do this."
Pew is proposing that federal regulators allow banks to charge no more than six overdraft fees a year; ban them from reordering transactions to maximize fees; and provide account holders with clear terms and pricing information.
Pew also recommends that regulators enable banks to offer affordable, small-dollar loans, in place of overdraft fees, to help vulnerable customers when they need credit.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been studying overdraft fees for several years. The agency continues to research such fees and is testing different types of bank disclosures that might help consumers better understand their overdraft options.
Here are some questions and answers about overdraft fees.
Q: How can I avoid overdraft fees?
A: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises that consumers not use the overdraft coverage offered by banks for debit-card purchases and ATM withdrawals. By law, customers must "opt in" to get such coverage. Be aware that without it, your bank will decline transactions that overdraw your account, instead of allowing them and then charging you a substantial fee.
Virginia O'Neill, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association's Center for Regulatory Compliance, emphasized that customers who want debit card and ATM overdraft protection "must opt in and can opt out at any time."
O'Neill also recommended that consumers take advantage of tools that banks offer to help customers manage their accounts, like text or e-mail alerts that notify customers if their balance drops below a certain level.
Q: What if I am charged a penalty, but I don't want overdraft coverage?
A: Pew's previous research has found that many consumers who pay overdraft fees do not recall choosing the coverage — perhaps because the language used by banks to promote the service can be confusing. You may want to call your bank to confirm that you are not mistakenly signed up for the coverage, Saunders said, and turn it off if you don't want it.
Q: What if I'm really worried about running up overdraft fees?
A: You may want to consider using prepaid debit cards, which typically do not allow overdrafts, or so-called safe checking accounts that do not offer overdraft protection at all, Saunders said.
The downside is that prepaid cards and "safe" accounts generally do not offer paper checks, and are more likely to charge monthly maintenance fees, so consumers should read the account agreement carefully. But it may be less costly overall, Saunders said, to pay a regular, relatively low fee each month than to potentially pay much more in overdraft fees for overspending your account.
Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.