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Financial watchdog accepts debit card, checking complaints

Consumers can gripe about bank account services to one federal agency

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As big banks across the country test the waters for ways to tack on new checking account fees, the federal financial watchdog agency Thursday launched a new website for consumers to file complaints about debit cards, checking accounts and other banking-related services.

Consumers who can't resolve problems with their banks now have a one-stop option for lodging banking complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Those who don't have access to computers can call the bureau's toll-free hotline at 855-411-CFPB (2372).

"Deposit accounts play a critical role in the lives of most Americans, but these products and the laws governing them are complicated," CFPB director Richard Cordray said in a statement Thursday. "Consumers need someone on their side to keep banks and credit unions accountable -- that is our job at the consumer bureau."

The bureau expects to receive complaints about checking and savings accounts, including opening and closing accounts, CDs and ATM cards, debit card problems, deposits and withdrawals, making online payments and sending money to others and issues regarding low account balances.

How the complaint system works
Consumers will be able to describe the problems they are having either online or by phone. Each person will receive a tracking number for his or her complaint. That number allows consumers to log into CFPB's website to check the status of the case. Banks will have 15 days to respond to the initial complaint. The bureau hopes to resolve each case within 60 days.  

Previously, bank customers experiencing problems had to contact one of several different agencies, depending on how the bank or credit union was chartered. The Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. were among the different regulators overseeing consumer complaints. Consumer advocates complained that these regulators devoted little time to resolving consumer complaints because much of their efforts were focused on insuring banks operated safely and soundly.

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The Wall Street reform law created the CFPB to focus solely on protecting consumers from potential abusive, deceptive or unfair financial products and services. The bureau officially opened for business on July 21, 2011, announcing it would gradually begin accepting consumer complaints. A credit card complaints website debuted first, followed by one for mortgage complaints. The bureau has said it plans to have a complaint system in place for all other types of financial products and services by the end of 2012.

Between July 21, 2011, and Feb. 22, 2012, the bureau has received 7,000 complaints about mortgages and 12,000 regarding credit cards.

'Free' checking no more
Consumer groups have warned bank customers to be even more diligent these days about reading the fine print and figuring out how their accounts are impacted by a host of new fees instituted by banks and credit unions. "Free" checking is becoming a thing of the past -- or something enjoyed by customers with high balances or established relationships with lenders.

According to the annual checking account fee survey conducted by Bankrate.com, offers of totally free checking accounts have dwindled over the past year. Fewer than half  (45 percent) of the noninterest checking accounts in the 2011 survey were free of maintenance fees. In 2010, 65 percent carried no fees, and in 2009, 76 percent of those accounts were fee-free.

Banks, meanwhile, are gearing up to charge fees for services that many customers have in the past received for free. That includes monthly maintenance fees and other charges for basic checking account services.Bank of America is testing options for charging $6 to $25 a month in fees for certain accounts. Customers who bank online, have credit cards or mortgages with the bank and maintain certain minimum account balances can typically avoid the fees.

Consumers Union, the consumer advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine, issued a statement asking BofA to drop its planned fee schedule. "It looks like Bank of America is up to its old tricks," Norma Garcia, manager of the consumer group's financial services team, said in a statement.  "Consumers have made it loud and clear that they are fed up with new bank fees. Bank of America should drop this latest fee scheme or risk losing even more customers who are tired of being nickeled and dimed at every turn."

Bank of America isn't alone in finding new fees. Other banks, including Citi, have rolled out monthly checking account fees. In all, according to a bank fee study released Wednesday by Javelin Strategy & Research, checking service fees for consumers have risen more than 20 percent in the past five years.

Banks are trying to shore up revenues lost in a series of new federal laws and regulations that have significantly curtailed banking industry profits from credit card interest and fees, debit card swipe fees and overdraft services. 

See related: Federal consumer watchdog opens for business, Federal credit card complaint system off to a rocky start, Bowing to pressure, Bank of America drops controversial debit card fee

Published: March 1, 2012



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