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Consumers need opt-in on overdraft programs

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fed Urged to Require Banks to Get Customers’ Permission First
Before Enrolling Them in Expensive Overdraft Programs

Consumer Reports Poll: Many Consumers Don’t Realize ATM & Debit Transactions Can Trigger Overdrafts; Most Want Opt-In Choice for Costly Overdraft Programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Banks shouldn’t be allowed to automatically enroll their customers in expensive overdraft loan programs, according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. The group urged the Federal Reserve Board in a letter today to require banks to get their customers’ permission first before signing them up for high fee overdraft loan programs for overdrafts triggered by ATM and debit transactions.
The Fed is currently considering whether consumers should be given the right to opt-in before banks can enroll them in overdraft programs covering ATM and debit transactions or simply a right to opt-out after the bank has signed them up for overdraft coverage. The Fed is accepting public comment on these two proposals through March 30. For a copy of Consumers Union’s letter to the Fed, see: http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/pdf/overdraft-comments-309.pdf
“Most banks automatically enroll their customers in so-called ‘overdraft protection’ programs, which are really high-cost loans that cost consumers billions of dollars every year,” said Lauren Zeichner Bowne, Staff Attorney for Consumers Union. “The Federal Reserve Board should protect consumers from unfair overdraft loan programs by stopping the fees unless the consumer makes the choice to opt-in to the loan program.”
Banks collect an estimated $7.8 billion in fees from overdrafts triggered by debit and ATM transactions. These overdrafts could be prevented with a simple warning or if the transaction was declined. Instead, most banks let these transactions go through and charge consumers a fee for each overdraft. The FDIC found that the median fee for overdrafts is $27, even though the average overdraft is triggered by transactions totaling $17.
A national poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that many consumers do not understand how overdraft programs work. According to the poll, 39 percent of consumers thought that their bank would either deny a debit transaction or allow it to proceed without charging a fee if it would overdraw their account. Nearly half of those polled (48 percent) thought their ATM card would not work if they attempted to withdraw more money than was available in their account.
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Consumers Union released the poll results in comments filed in support of the opt-in proposal with the Federal Reserve Board. The group opposes the opt-out proposal because the evidence suggests that most consumers will not change their status if banks automatically enroll them in overdraft programs.
The vast majority of consumers have accounts at banks that automatically enroll customers in programs that allow debit and ATM transaction to trigger overdrafts. An FDIC study found that “institutions that use automated programs to cover overdraft obligations accounted for almost 73 percent of deposit dollars held in the study population banks.”
Automatic fee-based overdraft programs are the most expensive option for consumers so banks don’t have an incentive to sell lower cost services, such as linked accounts or lines of credit. The FDIC has concluded that the fees assessed for these other types of programs are significantly lower than for automatic overdraft loan programs.
The Consumer Reports poll found that the overwhelming number of consumers want a real choice when it comes to overdraft programs. The poll found that two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) said they prefer to expressly authorize overdraft coverage, so that there would be no overdraft loan – or fee – until they opted in to the service. Similarly, two thirds (65 percent) said that banks should deny a debit or ATM transaction if the checking account balance is too low.
In its comments to the Federal Reserve Board, Consumers Union also urged the Board to declare that fee-based overdraft loans are extensions of credit that should be subject to the Truth in Lending Act and Regulation Z requirements to disclose their cost in terms of an annual percentage rate. For the average overdraft, the APR would equal 4,140 percent.
The FDIC has found that banks commonly process transactions from largest to smallest, which increases the number of overdrafts. Consumers Union urged the Fed to restrict this practice when it issues its new overdraft regulations. In addition, the group called on the Fed to prohibit banks from charging fees if the overdraft was triggered because the bank placed a hold on a customer’s deposit, and to cap the daily and monthly totals for allowable overdraft fees.
“If banks believe that overdraft programs are truly beneficial, then they should be required to persuade their customers to sign up before they can charge them such high fees,” said Zeichner Bowne. “The Fed should end automatic enrollment in costly overdraft programs by giving consumers the choice to opt-in. Consumers concerned about high cost overdraft fees have until March 30 to support these important new rules.” Consumers can learn more and submit comments to the Fed at: http://cu.convio.net/OverDraft
The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey using a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 679 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+ who reported having a checking account with an ATM card or a debit card. Interviewing took place over February 5-8, 2009. The sampling error is +/- 3.8% at a 95% confidence level.
Lauren Zeichner Bowne or Michael McCauley: 415-431-6747