ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If it seems like you're paying more in bank fees, you probably are. Banks have adding new surcharges and fees on top of all the old surcharges and fees - so much, in fact, that these little add-ons add up to about $38 billion a year, and banks rely on them as they try to recover from the subprime mortgage crisis.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI: Using other banks' ATM used to cost about a dollar. Now that can cost 2.50 or more. That's great for banks because it's, well, money in the bank.
Mr. SCOTT VALENTIN (Analyst, Friedman Billings Ramsey): It's a great fee for banks to charge, 'cause you're hitting a non-customer, right, if someone's using your ATM. And if anything, the higher the fee, the more likely it is to induce that person to become a customer.
NOGUCHI: That's Scott Valentin, an analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey. Some banks have taken huge hits from the subprime meltdown, some haven't. Regardless, they're making fewer loans tied to real estate. And with less money made on loans, fees become a very important source of revenue. Overdraft charges, online banking and bill pay charges, fees for wiring or receiving money - the list goes on and on.
Bob Hedges founded the Mercatus consulting firm. He says some banks get as much as half their revenue from fees.
Mr. BOB HEDGES (Mercatus Consulting): And they're all - the fees today is much more significant than it was, you know, 10 years ago. Interest rates have gone down, credit losses have gone up, fee incomes become a more valuable source of income for them. And we're also in an earnings environment that the banks are under significant earnings pressure.
NOGUCHI: In fact, Bank of America and Washington Mutual got hit by the subprime business. They also increased their overdraft fees earlier this year. But raising fees is also starting to inspire consumer backlash. Karney Hatch spent the last two years working on a documentary film about overdraft charges.
Ms. KARNEY HATCH (Filmmaker): Hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month people sometimes spend on overdraft charges. So what I decided to do was test the limit of the insanity. I opened a Wells Fargo account. It's hovering near zero right now. It's a Saturday, so it's not even a banking day, and I'm going to go into this mall behind me and I'm going to see how many overdraft charges I can get with this card.
NOGUCHI: In the film, Hatch buys two dollars worth of stuff and racks up $102 in overdraft fees. That didn't used to happen, says Leslie Parrish. She's a senior researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending.
Ms. LESLIE PARRISH (Center for Responsible Lending): So five to seven years ago, the common bank and credit union practice was if you didn't have enough money in your account, your debit card would simply be declined at no fee to you.
NOGUCHI: Parrish says consumers no longer have that option. Now overdraft charges are automatic. Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner said the bank emphasizes consumer education. It also has a feature that sends email or mobile phone alerts when accounts are low.
Ms. DIANE WAGNER (Bank of America): Our fees are competitive, fair and priced relative to the overall risk we incur. And they're also competitive with fees as other financial institutions.
NOGUCHI: Bank fees have caught Washington's attention. In January, the Government Accountability Office called for better disclosure of fees. And now the Federal Reserve is considering a proposal giving customers the option of not using overdraft programs. Some financial service companies are salivating at the chance to compete against the banks. Investment houses like Charles Schwab now market low-cost fees for their services.
(Soundbite of television commercial)
Unidentified Woman (Actor): Account research fee, $32. Deposit verification - are these even actual terms? It's like someone spent their entire day thinking of ways to nickel and dime us.
NOGUCHI: Ads like these are making inroads, said Bob Hedges of Mercatus.
Mr. Hedges: They're all taking dead aim at the traditional banking franchises of banks - checking accounts, money market funds - and are starting to win over consumers to do their banking business with a firm that, five or 10 years ago, wasn't in the banking business.
NOGUCHI: So banks may be losing business because customers feel they're getting hosed by fees. But the practice isn't likely to go away soon. With the economy slowing, why would banks kill off their cash cow?
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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