Travel Q&a: Atm Cards

July 05, 2009|By Catharine Hamm | Catharine Hamm,Tribune Newspapers

Question: : While traveling in Peru for several months, I have been using my ATM card. No fees were ever disclosed. I have since learned that I have been charged an international transaction fee plus a $5 fee for each transaction. The combined fees have added up to hundreds of dollars. Trying to get a refund has been fruitless. Shouldn't banks make customers aware of these fees?

Answer: : They do. Why, it took me only about 30 minutes of hunting on the bank's Web site to find the answer. And when I contacted the bank (it happens to be Bank of America), I was provided this easy-to-remember Web site, https://www5.bankofamerica.com/search/Se arch.do?questionbox=Global+ATM+Alliance& searchSourceSite=dotcom&searchSourceDir= deposits&searchSourceReferer=%252Fdeposi ts%252Fchecksave%252Findex%252Ecfm&locale=en_US, which essentially says that if you're using one of the 12,000 banks abroad that belong to its Global ATM Alliance, the fee is waived. Unfortunately for this traveler, none of these happens to be in Peru.

We've all grown accustomed to ATM fees, alas. But the international transaction fee still rankles. In this case, it's 1 percent at the ATM and 3 percent at the point of purchase.

These fees are a kind of insurance against fraud, said Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research for CreditCards.com, a card information and comparison Web site. Sometimes a merchant will accept a debit card and find out later that it was a fraudulent transaction. Your fees help offset that loss. Woolsey doesn't dispute the necessity of protection but thinks 3 percent might be a tad high.

So do Avi Karnani and Matt Wallaert, co-founder and behavioral psychologist, respectively, of the Web site Thrive (justthrive.com ), which helps consumers manage their finances.

They make two points: Fees should be transparent, and they should make sense. "I think again it comes down to understanding what you're paying for," Karnani said. "The burden is on the bank to make sure that the individual knew about [the fees]," he said.

So there's a practical answer here and there's a philosophical one. If you're traveling abroad, ask your bank about its transaction fees.

And the philosophical question: Whose responsibility is it to know this? "They're a bank - that's their job," Wallaert said. "This is arguably the service they are providing." Perhaps. But, I wouldn't bank on it.

- Catharine Hamm, Tribune Newspapers

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