Monthly debit card fees taking shape

Monthly debit card fees taking shape

August 31st, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Pedestrians walk past a CBC ATM off Market St. in downtown Chattanooga early Monday afternoon. New legislation passed by Congress will cap what banks may charge retailers for debit transactions, resulting in a debit card service fee that the bank will charge its customers.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Debit fee status report

Bank of America - Examining overall maintenance fees instead of debit card fees

Bank of LaFayette - No current plans for debit fees

BB&T - Examining overall maintenance fees instead of debit card fees

Cornerstone Community Bank - Using lack of new fees to differentiate it from big banks

First Volunteer - Budget checking account includes $3 monthly service charge, personal checking account waives $8 fee if balance stays above $500

First Tennessee - $6 monthly fee on checking accounts starting Sept. 15. Fees may be waived or reduced for students or those with higher minimum balances.

FSGBank - Using lack of new fees to differentiate it from big banks

Regions - $4 monthly fee on some accounts starting in October

SouthCrest - No current plans for debit card fees, examining higher account balance requirements

SunTrust - $5 monthly fee on "Everyday Checking" account since June, and also on student accounts starting in March 2012

Wells Fargo - $3 monthly fee on some Georgia accounts beginning in October as part of pilot program

Sources: Regional bank executives and spokesmen

Big banks are phasing in monthly fees on debit card usage starting in October, while smaller banks are taking a wait-and-see stance before deciding whether to charge customers for bank card purchases.

The new fees are designed to compensate for lost revenues stemming from the Durbin Amendment to the federal Dodd-Frank Act, which slashes in half the amount banks can charge merchants for each electronic transaction beginning in October.

First Tennessee, Regions Bank, SunTrust and Wells Fargo are testing fees ranging from $3 to $6 on certain accounts, officials say, a reversal from the era when free checking and complimentary debit cards were the norm.

"For those accounts with a monthly debit card fee, it will be assessed when at least one point-of-sale transaction is made with that card during a statement cycle," except for ATM withdrawals, said Mel Campbell, media relations manager for Regions Financial Corp.

Meanwhile, smaller community banks like Chattanooga-based Cornerstone Community Bank and the Bank of LaFayette may be able to avoid charging the fees, thanks to an exemption in the Durbin Amendment for small banks with less than $10 billion in assets.

"I think what you'll see, at least at this bank, is us keeping things the way they are to try to bring customers to the community banks from the regional banks," said Frank Hughes, president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Bank.

These smaller banks can still collect the full amount from merchants, so there's theoretically no need to turn to customers to make up the difference.

But there's a catch: the electronic payment networks like Visa and MasterCard to which smaller banks subscribe -- the physical servers, switches and routers -- were built and are owned by the big banks.

"Nine times out of 10, when they do stuff like this it trickles down," said Blake Strickland, president and CEO at the 92,000-member Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union. "I fully expect to see some kind of ramification from it."

On one hand, Strickland said that the Visa and MasterCard networks have informed him that they should be able to differentiate between electronic traffic from small banks and big banks.

But until the new rules take place in October, community banks are holding their breath, said Larry Kuglar, board member and former CEO of SouthCrest Financial Group.

"We'd prefer not to add a lot of fees to our accounts," Kuglar said. "We'll have to first see what kind of effect it will have on earnings and income."

For larger banks that say they aren't charging new debit fees, like Winston-Salem, N.C.-based BB&T, customers may instead see new requirements for minimum account balances or direct-deposit usage in order to avoid monthly $10 maintenance fees, said BB&T spokeswoman Merrie Tolbert.

Bank of America, too, is emphasizing overall maintenance fees rather than debit fees, with "new pricing changes in 2011," said spokeswoman Christina Beyer.

"The services we provide are valuable, and some special services result in additional costs to us -- costs that we are simply passing on to the customers who use them," she said.

Most banks agree that typical customers will be able to avoid the fees, debit or otherwise, through self-service banking, making monthly direct deposits or keeping larger account balances.

For customers who don't want the hassle of juggling account balances, there still are free checking accounts available in the region, with few caveats.

FSGBank offers fee-free debit card accounts with no maintenance charges at its 37 branches, said Gina Crumbliss, FSG marketing director.

"The bigger banks have sent out letters saying there's not going to be any more free checking accounts," she said. "But we're not going with that trend."