Use of computer triggers bank fee

Wachovia, others charging for access

May 10, 2007|By Peralte C. Paul | Peralte C. Paul,Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- Nothing gets consumers riled up and griping about their banks more than fees.

Get ready to gripe some more.

Wachovia has joined a number of other financial institutions, including Bank of America and SunTrust Banks, who charge their customers a monthly fee to download account information through their Quicken or Microsoft Money personal money management software.

"This helps us offset some of the costs to our business for managing the access to the account information through the account software," said David Oliver, a Wachovia Corp. spokesman.

The $5.95 monthly fee, instituted April 1, can be waived if the customer logs onto Wachovia's Web site and downloads the information onto his or her own computer's hard drive. It also is waived if that customer has a Crown account banking package with combined balances of $5,000 or more.

But going directly to Wachovia's site creates an extra step for the customer, who then has to input the information into Quicken or Microsoft Money.

The situation underscores what has been a continual sore point for bank customers: Seemingly being charged fees and surcharges for almost every little thing. Some of the fees, such as ATM charges to use another bank's cash machines, have stuck. Others, like fees to talk to a live person via telephone or to conduct in-branch banking with a teller, have been scrapped because of consumer outcry.

Bank of America has been charging $9.95 a month for "a number of years," said spokeswoman Betty Reiss. Like Wachovia's fee, it is waived if the customer has certain accounts or goes onto Bank of America's Web site directly.

Earlier this year, Bank of America created new features in its "My Portfolio" account management program that allow customers to aggregate all their financial accounts, including non-Bank of America accounts, and conduct some of the same money management tasks that Quicken and Microsoft Money allow. That option is fee-free, too.

But Reiss said it wasn't designed to force customers onto My Portfolio. "The objective really is certain customers want to see a total picture of their financial relationships," she said.

Some bankers say these fees do nothing but cause customer angst.

"People come up with more than a million reasons to charge fees," said Arkadi Kuhlmann, president and chief executive of ING Direct, among the nation's biggest online-only banks. ING doesn't charge a download fee.

Banks have an obligation to protect their customers' information, he said, especially since they don't have full control over a third-party's handling of that data. But unless these fees are tied to some sort of insurance to protect the customer in case of a security breach, it's just another fee, Kuhlmann said.

Intuit, the maker of Quicken, says only 27 percent of financial institutions charge their own customers to download their account information.

The majority of financial institutions, including Merrill Lynch & Co., Washington Mutual, Fidelity Investments and First Horizon among others, don't tack on a download fee.

"People are being charged for things here, there and everywhere, but it doesn't spell value for the customer," Kuhlmann said. "It makes it ever increasingly difficult for people to work their way through the bank without getting dinged. And as we move to more electronic banking, it's going to be harder for people to speak up and fight the things they don't want."

What the fees are for is a point of contention between the banks and the software makers.

Atlanta-based SunTrust charges $5.95 a month to its customers - waiving the fee for certain types of accounts - which helps "defray some of our operational maintenance cost and fees for the application," SunTrust spokesman Hugh Suhr said.

But Emily Leeson, a Microsoft Money spokeswoman, said it charges no fees to the banks. Microsoft Money has about 7 million active users.

Intuit charges a flat fee to banks based on the format the banks choose for their customers, company officials said. The company doesn't dictate to banks if that fee should be passed on to customers, the officials said.

"We don't have an impact on what banks do or don't do," said Jodi Reinman, an Intuit spokeswoman. "The fees that they charge is a decision that they make."

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