In the three years since automated teller machine fees took root, surcharging has come to dictate when, where, and how consumers get cash, according to a spectrum of public opinion polls.

Consumers say they are going out of their way to find and use machines that do not charge them a fee. Banks and ATM processing networks are also noticing habit changes, such as heavier use of debit cards at the point of sale, according to surveys.

"People have altered their behavior in response to surcharging, plain and simple," said James Belcher, research analyst at PSI Global, a Tampa, Fla.-based research and marketing firm.

A PSI Global survey of 3,217 consumers in April and May found that 15% have limited their use of ATMs in response to surcharging.

Forty percent said they skirted fees by using only their own financial institution's ATMs, and another 11% said they used only ATMs they knew would not surcharge them.

Most banks charge fees only to noncustomers who use their ATMs, and 23% of the PSI respondents said they use a "foreign" machine only in an emergency.

Of the 397 respondents who said they curtailed their use of ATMs in the last year, 42% said they did so because of high fees. Forty-four percent cited substitution of a debit/check card, and 32% said they used checks instead.

Eighteen percent said they used a debit card and asked for cash back.

Popular attitudes toward surcharging are rising in importance as consumer groups and legislators renew their vitriolic fights against surcharging. Surcharge foes are attempting to tap into people's testy feelings on the subject.

Banks know that the fees are not winning any popularity contests, but they point to polls such as PSI Global's as evidence that consumers can - and do - avoid incurring surcharges.

"They're adults, and they are voluntarily making a decision to use or not use another financial institution's ATMs," said Ken Herz, a spokesman for Chase Manhattan Corp.

Surcharging became prevalent in 1996, when Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International dropped the bans on the practice that they had exercised through their national ATM processing networks, Plus and Cirrus.

After banks began surcharging, nonbank companies began buying ATMs and placing them in retail locations to reap surcharge revenue.

Though consumers have grown accustomed to paying fees for cash access in airports, grocery stores, and elsewhere, they still bristle at the charges, especially when they are getting cash at a bank branch. Anti-surcharge forces call foreign ATM fees "unfair" and characterize them as "double-dipping," but banks say consumers are casting their votes each day when they choose to either use their own bank's ATM, or incur a "convenience fee."

GartnerGroup Inc., a research and consulting firm in Stamford, Conn., polled 257 ATM-owning banks in July and August about the behavior changes they have seen in the wake of surcharging.

Larger banks said surcharging seems to have had a deep influence on customer behavior, while small banks said the practice has made less of a difference.

Among banks with more than $4 billion in deposits that responded to the GartnerGroup survey, 36% said they noticed consumers limiting use of ATMs that surcharge.

Forty-nine percent of these banks said consumers have begun withdrawing larger amounts of cash, and 53% said surcharging has prompted consumers to use debit cards more often.

Among medium-sized institutions - those with $1 to $4 billion in deposits - 59% said consumers avoid surcharging, and 38% said customers limit their use of ATMs that assess the fees.

Banks in the GartnerGroup survey with less than $1 billion in deposits said 21% of customers avoid surcharging ATMs.

Kristen Min, senior research analyst at GartnerGroup, said the survey results undercut an argument often made by surcharge opponents, that the practice harms smaller banks with modest ATM networks.

On the contrary, the findings "indicate that surcharging has had a greater impact on larger banks' cardholders," Ms. Min said.

The smallest community banks - those with less than $250 million in deposits - are more likely to be located in rural towns where customers have little choice but to use their own institution's machines, she said.

Institutions in the middle tier - those that position themselves as "larger regional community banks" - are more likely to feel pressure from national banks with ATM bases that blanket much of the country, she said.

Stan Paur, president and chief executive officer of the Pulse EFT Association, a Houston-based shared ATM/debit network, said it is "abundantly clear" that an increasing number of Pulse cardholders are trying to avoid fees by using their cards at point of sale locations instead of "foreign" ATMs.

"Those people who want to pay, will, and those that don't want to pay will find alternative ways," Mr. Paur said.

Even in 1997, consumers were steering clear of surcharging ATMs, according to a study commissioned by Pulse and conducted by Rice University and Analytica, a Houston-based research organization. That study found that 18% of cardholders pay 60% of surcharges collected, 70% of adults said they had never paid such fees, and 80% said they avoid ATMs that surcharged.

Public attitudes have helped turn surcharging into a significant business decision for banks as they grapple with their position in a given market.

One institution that recently faced a choice was Boston-based Citizens Bank of Massachusetts, which is acquiring UST Corp. of Boston and competing against a much larger neighbor, FleetBoston Financial Corp.

Thomas J. Hollister, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Bank, said his bank weighed risks and rewards before it decided to become the largest member of a no-surcharge alliance in Massachusetts, SUM.

The decision was announced Monday.

Mr. Hollister said Citizens Bank is ready to lose ATM fees in the short run in order to "make it up with a larger customer base" in the long run. The bank said that its own consumer surveys showing distaste for surcharging were a big factor in the decision.

FleetBoston, the largest bank in the state, does not participate in the SUM program. Under pressure from Massachusetts State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, however, the bank has capped its surcharge at 75 cents through yearend 2000.

Massachusetts is among a growing number of states that have attempted to pass legislation to ban ATM surcharges. But an economist commissioned by the American Bankers Association to study the issue says that legal surcharge restrictions will only hurt the public.

Robert E. Litan, vice president and director of the economic studies program of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said fee bans will result in fewer ATMs, or higher charges at ATMs owned by nonbanks, which are exempt from the bans in most places they have been enacted or proposed.

"Because discriminatory surcharge bans shelter nonbank owners from the competition supplied by financial institutions, they will tend to reduce competition in the ATM market, which may lead to even higher surcharges at many machines," Mr. Litan wrote in a recent report.

"Indeed, there is evidence that nonbank owners already impose, on average, higher ATM fees than financial institutions."

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