DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Electronic messages can circle the globe almost instantly. But electronic payments can still take days to complete. And that puts consumers at risk of getting hit with late fees or other costs. As Charles Lane from member station WSHU reports, regulators now want to speed things up.
CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Jasmine Dareus is a college freshman. And she's scrolling through some recent bank statements.
JASMINE DAREUS: A lot of it was, like, textbooks.
LANE: One of those books cost $3.
DAREUS: But with the fee, the $36 fee that I got attached to it, it ended up being, like, $39.
LANE: Over the last couple months, Dareus has gotten hit with $200 worth of overdraft fees. She's often unsure of what's in her bank account. It all depends on which transactions happen first, the deposit or the debits.
DAREUS: It may say I have, like, $150. But if I bought something from Publix for, like, $20 and they hadn't charged me yet, then, essentially, I don't have $150. I really have $130 in my bank account.
LANE: Dareus isn't the only one who wants electronic payments to catch up with real-time life. Richard Cordray heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In a recent speech to bankers, he said roughly half of all bank fees could be attributed to a slow payment system.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
RICHARD CORDRAY: Make it an urgent priority. Move as quickly as you can. Others around the world have built faster payment systems, two dozen countries or more.
LANE: There are few reasons why U.S. banks aren't rushing to modernize the payment system. Those overdraft fees are a $32 billion source of revenue for banks. Plus, until now, regulators weren't really pushing banks to go faster. But perhaps the biggest reason is the slow payment system; it works pretty well, according to Aaron Klein, who studies financial regulation at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
AARON KLEIN: The operators of the system were more afraid of the downside risk of any changes occurring than the upside of moving faster.
LANE: Another reason for the slow change is this...
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK PAGES FLIPPING)
LANE: A big, fat rulebook.
And how many pages, do you figure?
SHANTA SEWNARAI: The last I looked at this - 295? - on regulations and formats and all different things.
LANE: Shanta Sewnarai overseas back-office operations for Bethpage Federal Credit Union on Long Island. Her bank and 10,000 others all synchronize around this rulebook so that transactions go flawlessly and without fraud. Ninety-nine percent of the time, everything works. But the possibility of that last one percent is why it can take three days to pay your phone bill online. At Bethpage Federal Credit Union, Debra Osman has to manually check transactions when something goes wrong.
DEBRA OSMAN: And in this particular file that came in, there was three items that exceptioned out, two of them for account not found and one of them, I think, the beneficiary is deceased.
LANE: Going faster means getting thousands of workers like Osman new computers, rewriting software, rewriting that fat rulebook and then training everyone. In recent months, several private industry groups representing banks have announced ways to speed up electronic payments. But the Federal Reserve has so far opted to take a backseat for fear of stymieing innovation. This worries consumer advocates like Lauren Saunders with the National Consumer Law Center.
LAUREN SAUNDERS: It needs to be a public system, written under a public process where everybody has input, not just from the perspective of the big banks.
LANE: Major players say a host of regulators already govern them. So the public does have input. And, they say, the changes they're already making on their own will significantly advance consumer protections once they're done. Unfortunately, any rebuild of these systems will take years. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.
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