Bankers Go To Sleep Counting Sheep

A sheep rancher expects a certain amount of wool per head. If a sheep doesn’t produce – or if wool prices droop – the rancher can sell the animal for mutton and its hide for sheepskin gloves (diplomas having shifted to mere paper).

That’s the model big bankers have adopted with respect to depositors. Or with lack of respect.

If you don’t leave enough money in a no-interest checking account or a next-to-no-interest savings account or CD, you just aren’t doing your share. You’ll have to make it up some way or other, paying fees for everything you do or don’t do through your bank or credit card.

For a time, the banks feasted on debit card swipe fees (charging you for using your own money) and outrageously expensive overdraft fees.

Some banks even jimmied the sequence of your transactions to create the greatest number of overdrafts. If you were slightly overdrawn because you made six small payments and one large one, they would enter the big one first – even if it actually happened last – so that you would wind up with four or five $30 or $40 overdraft charges on the small payments.

Public outrage and some new regulations put a stop to the worst of those abuses starting about three years ago.

So now the bankers are busy creating ninja stealth fees they hope customers and regulators won’t notice.

Activity fees. Inactivity fees. Fees for too few transactions or too many phone calls to customer service. Fees for using a teller instead of an ATM. Fees for using an ATM. Fees to replace a lost debit card. Fees to have cash wired to your account, fees to deposit money with a mobile phone

Think about those last two examples for a moment. Each puts money into your account. The bank will earn interest on that money while it’s there, but they won’t pay any of that interest to you. Instead, they’ll make you pay them just to accept your money. Nice work if you can get it.

They’re sheep herders. They know how much money they want, and it’s up to the herd of customers to provide it, by hook or by shepherd’s crook.

“Pay up, you deadbeat – we need our fat bonuses!”

And the fees keep coming. A $2.99 or $10 or $12 monthly charge just to have a basic checking account – never mind that each of your deposits is actually an interest-free loan to the bank.

Credit card customers may soon be charged for getting paper statements, charged $1 to $5 for customer service calls beyond a certain limit, fees of $5 to $15 for not using their cards often enough, usurious cash advance fees raised to 5% of a transaction instead of the former 1% or 2%, interest rates that jump to more than 30% — more usury — if one or two credit card payments are late.

Last year a Pew Charitable Trust study found that bank customers could incur 49 different fees on a typical checking account.

My bank used to send my cancelled checks along with the monthly statement. These sometimes came in handy – when a merchant or a tax collector claimed I hadn’t paid something.

To save money (not for me; for themselves), the bankers stopped sending the checks. They sent, instead, a sheet of check images – the fronts of the checks, not the backs, which would have told me where and when the check had been cashed and deposited. Then they started to clear checks electronically with some big merchants and other banks, so those checks aren’t shown at all. And the final insult — they started to charge a “check imaging fee” every month for this self-serving mockery of customer service

Your satisfaction plummets as your expenses soar, because that’s what customers are for.

Bankers’ feelings are so hurt when the president or a consumer advocate, or a normally kindly, fun loving blog writer (ahem) complains about their tactics. But the big banks loom even larger now than they did before they helped to cause the financial crisis and then had to be bailed out with our money. The 12 biggest banks have 70% of all federally insured deposits; the 5,500 community banks have 12%. And the big bankers’ salaries and bonuses range from the millions into the dozens of millions.

Too big to fail.
Too big to feel.
Too big to jail.
Never too big to fee.

They may one day be sorry for treating us customers like ruminant animals, there to be shorn. The more we ruminate, the madder we get

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.