The road to corporate greed is paved with nickel-and-dime bank charges.
Want a paper statement? That’ll cost you a few bucks. Not making enough deposits or withdrawals? That’ll result in an inactivity fee of as much as $10.
But the returned-check fee might take the cake.
Brian Baltow of Thousand Oaks, Calif., recently received a check from a client for $120. Unfortunately, the check bounced.
Baltow’s bank, Bank of America, returned the check to the guy who wrote it. And it dinged Baltow with a $12 fee.
“They said it was my responsibility to check that the person writing the check had sufficient funds in his account,” Baltow, 76, told me.
The returned-check fee levied by many banks is yet another example of how multibillion-dollar financial institutions don’t hesitate to reach into customers’ pockets for the most spurious of reasons.
Ever since the financial crisis, regulators have become more watchful about the types of fees banks can charge customers.
In 2009, the banking industry raked in more than $41 billion in account fees. By 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, fee revenue dropped to $32.5 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
But that doesn’t mean banks have stopped turning the screws. It means that they’re just as aggressive, if not more so, in shaking people down for fees they’re still allowed to levy.
The industry isn’t hard up for cash. In the most recent quarter, JPMorgan Chase’s profit rose 12 percent to nearly $6 billion. Citigroup saw its profit jump 21 percent to $4.8 billion. Wells Fargo earned $5.8 billion. And that’s for just the first three months of the year.
Baltow, who works part time as a bookkeeper for mechanics and parts suppliers, said he had no reason to suspect a client was having cash-flow problems when he deposited the client’s check at an ATM. His client had never bounced a check before.
A few days after making the deposit, Baltow received a letter from BofA saying the check had bounced and that a $12 returned-check fee had been deducted from Baltow’s account.
He immediately contacted the bank and was informed that he should have known better than to deposit a check drawn on an account with insufficient funds.
“I asked how I should have known that,” Baltow told me. “They said I should have contacted the person myself.”
BofA declined to comment. An American Bankers Association executive explained banks face costs every time they deal with a bounced check. The money has to come from somewhere.
Katherine Porter, a University of California, Irvine School of Law professor who focuses on consumer issues, said the process for returning a bounced check is entirely automated. “Banks have a right to charge fees to cover their actual costs,” she said. “But there’s no way for anyone to know what the actual cost really is.”
The ABA advises dissatisfied customers to take their business elsewhere. But moving one’s accounts and financial dealings can be a hassle — and the banks know this. And there’s something many banks will do when you close an account: charge a fee.
David Lazarus writes for the Los Angeles Times.