By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Low- and middle-income consumers suffer serious economic harm when they are forced to pay predatory overdraft fees. These fees are triggered when consumers charge more to their bank account — either on a debit card or by writing a check — than the funds existing to cover the charge. These can mean that a $5 charge —when there isn’t enough money in the account to cover it — costs a consumer more like $40 due to an overdraft fee of $35. And if the customer makes other charges not covered by the balance, each one of them can add a $35 overdraft fee.
Some good news, though, came recently from the CEO of Capital One, Rich Fairbanks. He announced that the company will stop charging these harsh fees and return “simplicity and humanity” to banking.
It used to be that covering an overage was a courtesy extended to bank customers at no cost. Sadly, that changed during the 1990s and 2000s, when overdraft fees became a profit center. And the profits are kind of shocking: $15.5 billion in 2019 for banks and credit unions on overdraft fees alone, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For some financial institutions, these fees represent more than half of their profits. Reforms are badly needed.
A recent Washington Post editorial identified overdraft best practices:
- Don’t charge more than one fee per overdraft
- Provide at least a day grace period
- Notify customers with a text or email alert about the overdraft
- Limit the number of fees per year
- Don’t assess fees at all if the overdraft is under $50
It’s just plain wrong for any industry to rack up big returns on the backs of low- or middle-income consumers. That’s known as a predatory practice for good reason. The National Consumers League hopes the example set by Capital One — to do away with harsh overdraft fees — will be a model for the industry. Banks are entitled to a fair profit, but overdraft fees are clearly a predatory practice. We applaud Capitol One for taking the first step and urge other industry members to follow suit; if nothing else, we hope the industry will move on its own toward the “best practices” playbook outlined above.
Addendum: As of this writing, Ally Bank, PNC, Santander, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Capital One Banks have either eliminated or reduced overdraft fees. We are very pleased to learn of these very important developments, which will greatly reduce the burden of overdrafts, particularly on low-income consumers. We thank these banks for taking important steps to reduce crippling charges for overdrafts.