New Survey Shows Banks Still Hiding Fees from Customers

Georgia PIRG Education Fund

ATLANTA, April 14 – A survey of more than 350 bank branches released today by the Georgia Public Interest Research Group revealed that fewer than half of branches obeyed their legal duty to fully disclose fees to prospective customers, while one in four provided no fee information at all.

The report,Big Banks, Bigger Fees: A National Survey of Bank Fees and Disclosure Policies, which includes consumer tips and a local comparison shopping guide, also found that despite widespread stories about the “death” of free checking, free and low-cost checking choices are still widely available, if consumers shop around.

“Shopping for banks is harder when they don’t obey the law and provide up front information about the fees they charge,” said Stephanie Ali, program associate with Georgia PIRG. “We look forward to July 21, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new consumer cop with only one job, protecting consumers, steps onto the financial beat and starts keeping the banks honest about their fees.”

Surveyors visited 372 bank branches in 20 states to compare fees and determine whether banks were complying with the 1991 Truth In Savings Act, which requires disclosure of all account-related fees to prospective customers. In 2008, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report finding that researchers “could not obtain” complete fee schedules at 22 percent of branches visited. Three years later that number is virtually the same, according to the new Georgia PIRG report.

“The Truth In Savings Act is a simple law that helps consumers shop around,” said Ali. “But compliance with it is horrific, harming consumers who don’t learn the truth.”
Among the findings of Big Banks, Bigger Fees:

•    Only 38% of banks visited provided researchers with fee schedules as required by law on their first request. After two or more requests, eventually a total of 55% complied with the law.
•    In a finding nearly identical to the GAO report, nearly one-quarter of branches (24%) never complied and refused to provide fee information, claimed that they didn’t have it, or told researchers to “go online.”
•    Researchers found a wide variety of free or low-cost checking options, at more than half of branches surveyed. Although the biggest banks have recently tightened requirements to obtain free checking, they have not eliminated it.
•    In Georgia, state and regional banks like BB&T, Bank of North Georgia, and State Bank and Trust all received “A” ratings for complying with our secret shopper’s request for bank fees on the first ask.
A shopping guide included in the report compares banking options, directs consumers to free and low-cost checking choices, and provides a list of fees that consumers should look out for when picking a bank. The group urged consumers to vote with their feet when they found that bank fees were too high.

“Big banks are blaming regulation for doing what they always do, which is raise fees,” said Ali, “But free checking is still there for consumers who look for it and there are lots of ways to avoid high bank fees.”

Georgia PIRG also made a series of recommendations to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which takes over most consumer law writing and enforcement on July 21. It called on the CFPB to enforce the Truth In Savings Act, and to require banks to post fees on the web in searchable formats and make fee disclosures in a clear, tabular format – not buried in cumbersome multi-page brochures.

“Banks will continue to ignore the Truth In Savings Act and other consumer laws until the CFPB takes over in July,” concluded Ali. “But the banks don’t want consumers to have their own tough cop.  That’s why they’ve launched a relentless Congressional campaign to weaken the CFPB, deny it a strong director and delay its startup date, because the banks like it better when there are no cops on the beat.”