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Candice Choi

As checking account fees spread fast, the word for consumers is vigilance

By Candice Choi
January 27, 2011

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First they took away free checking. Now banks are charging more for ATM withdrawals, stop payments on checks, and other services.

Most notably, banks are bracing for a cap on the fees they can collect from merchants whenever customers swipe their debit cards. Some estimate the proposed restriction could slash this income by as much as 70 percent, or about $14 billion a year.

Banks are also prohibited from automatically enrolling customers in overdraft programs, which have been an increasingly rich source of penalty fee income. So banks are quietly raising fees or introducing new ones. Here are five ways to dodge checking-account fees:

Pick the right account. At Citi, for example, customers who maintained a minimum balance of $1,500 previously enjoyed free checking. Now customers who sign up for the most basic checking account have to make at least five transactions a month to get an $8 monthly fee waived.

Bank of America is testing checking accounts with fees ranging from $6 to $25. The trial is limited to three states but is expected to go national next year.

Watch out for service fees. Suppose a check you deposit ends up bouncing. In the past, it may have led to a headache, but no penalty fee. But Bank of America recently started charging $12 for each deposited check that does not clear. Statements that include check images are no longer free, either; they now cost $3.

At Chase, starting Feb. 5 a stop payment will cost $34, up from $32. Domestic wire transfers will cost $30, up from $25.

Don’t get robbed at the ATM. It might be better to print your statement at home. Bank of America is charging $3 to print an account summary at an ATM, up from $2. Chase next month will begin charging $1 to print recent transactions.

And the cost of using another bank’s ATM isn’t getting any cheaper. The combined cost for getting cash was almost $4, on average, according to a Bankrate.com study last fall.

Tune in, opt out. A quick way to rack up fees is by overdrawing your account. You can prevent that by turning off the ability to do so. This wasn’t an option before July; it was standard to automatically enroll customers in overdraft programs.

Now that customers must be given a choice, banks are touting lower penalty fees. But fees are still as high as $39 per violation. And if you don’t notice that you have overdrawn your account, you can quickly rack up hundreds of dollars in fees — even if you overdraw by just a few dollars.

Take the money and run. If you’re not satisfied with your account, shop for a new bank. Free checking is still widely available; according to Bankrate.com.

If it’s service fees you’re worried about, banks sometimes waive certain fees for customers who keep higher balances. Another option is community banks and credit unions.

Candice Choi writes for the Associated Press.