By Michael Iacuessa

Just as banks began to struggle a couple years ago, they found a lucrative income source - the poor. And with the economy in recession, there has been no shortage in that class to pick on.

In 2006, overdraft fees brought in an $18 billion profit for banks, a figure that rose to $24 billion in 2008 and an estimated $38.5 billion last year. Again, those figures are profit, after the risk. Countries have started wars for less money than that.

There was a time banks generally either refused to cover overdrafts or did so for free as a service to sound customers. In the last decade, however, the practice changed and overdraft fees have doubled, even including an increase in the middle of the 2009 recession. The current median overdraft fee is $26, although if one just evaluates the larger Wall Street banks, the median is $33.

Of course, the larger the overdraft fee, the more likely it is to reek havoc on one's bank account. In fact, banks count on the domino effect. In a study released in 2008 by the FDIC, a quarter of those incurring an overdraft fee were hit with additional charges. In fact, if a person withdraws $20 beyond their balance from an ATM and is unable to pay it back for two weeks - say, the maximum time for the next paycheck period - it is not uncommon for the annualized interest rate to exceed 3,500% on the advance. Some banks outsource the service to third parties that advertise a 400% return on overdraft fees.

With that kind of profit margin, it is not surprising that 70% of banks offering overdraft protection will let customers withdraw money from an ATM and 89% will allow a sales charge without informing them of insufficient funds. Additionally, three quarters of banks automatically enroll new customers in an overdraft protection plan and many of the large banks will not let customers opt out.

For low income customers, the risk is ever present. A study by the Center for Responsible Lending discovered that more than two-thirds of overdrafts occur with people attempting to pay expenses that are unavoidable - bills, transportation, housing, medical and food. Further, 8% had money deducted from their government aid, social security, unemployment, welfare or veteran's benefits to cover the fees.

Here are four ways the larger banks will try to confuse customers into fees:

1. The "Free" Checking Account

Years ago, major banks either required a monthly fee or a minimum balance on checking accounts which meant most people living paycheck to paycheck lost money when they put it in the bank, the fees far surpassing any paltry interest they could earn.

That practice has been replaced by the free checking account with supposedly no minimum balance required. This pitch makes it easier for sales reps to gain new bank customers who might otherwise have searched for a bank with a more lenient option but in reality there is a catch. A customer has to open a savings account to accompany the checking and agree to allow an automatic monthly transfer, usually $75, to the savings. The sales rep will tell customers that it is to help them save money as if the bank had an altruistic about their well being.

In actuality what this arrangement does is two things. One, it allows banks to charge a fee when the customer does not have $75 to transfer. The fee is not taken from the checking account, however. It is assessed to the savings. If the customer hasn't put any money into the savings which is often the case with a low income customer opening a new account, there is an additional charge for each day the savings account remains in the negative due to the fee. There have been widespread complaints that customers aren't informed this when they open accounts and by the time the get the letter in the mail notifying them, they have lost anywhere from $25 to $45. In some cases, such as Wells Fargo, the letter will inform them the transfer did not go through but will not notify them of the fee, prolonging the daily penalty being assessed.

Secondly, the transfer arrangement also adds confusion regarding the checking balance. A person living paycheck to paycheck is going to need that money bank in their checking account. If the customer forgets to transfer the money back to cover a charge, the bank gets to assess a fee when it has to do this itself.

2) Pending Transactions

When a customer makes a purchase on their debit card, the transaction is not conducted immediately, particularly when the purchase is charged. There is a stage where the funds are held on one's account, then a stage where the money is actually transferred to the merchant a few days later.

This can be confusing when one checks their online statement as the purchase initially will appear as a pending transaction and the money is deducted from the available balance. However, it is common for that charge to fall off a couple days later, falsely raising the balance before eventually going through. Overdrafts often occur as a result of people trusting the bank's accounting of what their account balance is.

Banks claim this is just how their software works but there are other people who will tell you the program can easily be changed.

3) Manipulation of Transaction Chronology

Pending transactions are also useful to banks when an overdraft does occur. There was a lawsuit filed against Bank of America last year when it was discovered, as is common practice in other institutions, that the bank regularly shifted the chronology of transactions to be able to assess the maximum number of overdraft fees. In other words, if someone made a $7 purchase in the morning and a $60 one in the afternoon and had only $50 in their bank account when the day started, the bank put the $60 charge first so the second also would fall into overdraft. Banks do the same thing with pending transactions, which, although they assess it to a balance at the onset, they can shift it and claim the charge was not completed until a few days later. So if someone makes a purchase on Monday, another on Tuesday and a third on Wednesday, the latter falling into overdraft, the bank has the power to shift the Monday and Tuesday transactions to occurring after the Wednesday one in order to charge more fees.

When these fees are contested, most banks will overturn them but even if six out of 10 people contest them, the bank still makes money on the other four. Thus, it's a win-win policy for them. They aren't in violation of the law because they can claim it was just a mistake and overturn it if contested but if it is not contested, it's no risk profit for them. According to the FDIC, 54% of larger banks do this customarily while less than a quarter of small banks do.

4) Check Delays

When a check is deposited that is drawn on a bank in the same region it should take just two days to clear but almost everyone knows this isn't always the case. In addition, an out-of-state check can take between nine to 11 business days to clear - meaning if holidays are involved it could total well into the third week. In one study, 30% of customer who incurred overdrafts claimed it was because of this.


The safest way to avoid overdrafts is to apply for a line of credit, an option for those fortunate enough to be working these days or for those who are more financially solvent. This is essentially the same thing as the bank offering a customer a credit card, meaning the bank allows one to go into the red and pay later with interest. Of course, like credit cards, this encourages the practice and creates debt, which is always lucrative to the loaner. Thus, the only way for people on a tight budget to avoid overdrafts - unless they want to spend hours every week being their own accountant - is to accept more credit.

With the current Move Your Money campaign, some have questioned whether moving their $1,000 balance to another bank will have much affect. These figures should erase those doubts. Just like the credit card companies prefer those who don't pay on time, the Wall Street banks compete heavily for the average Joe as much as the wealthy because the $33 fees add up -- to nearly $40 billion.


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