Consumer activists don't want banks to get away with automated teller machine surcharges - at least not without a fight.
The Center for Study of Responsive Law, an organization associated with Ralph Nader, is considering staging protests at several banks across the country on April 1, when MasterCard and Visa rules will permit ATM-owning banks to impose a fee on each noncustomer making a transaction.
Janice Shields, research analyst for the Washington-based law center, said she would like to see consumers come out in force.
"We save (banks) money and they charge us for it," she complained. "We can fight back."
Surcharges - typically 50 cents to $2.50 per transaction - are currently allowed in 14 states where legislation preempted the rules of MasterCard International's Cirrus ATM network and Visa International's Plus system.
Facing the spreading reality of surcharges, often for cash withdrawals in tourist locales like airports and casinos, Visa voted to lift its ban last November. MasterCard followed last month.
Noting that banks are increasingly charging for human-teller transactions, Ms. Shields said many consumers must pay fees no matter how they get their money.
Edward Mierzwinski, consumer project director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, said his group may join in protests April 1, but he is targeting state capitals.
"I have been talking to legislators around the country, who are very upset," he said. "ATMs were supposed to lower the cost of banking, and banks have turned them into cash cows."
Under card association rules, signs must be posted on ATMs that surcharge, and consumers must be able to cancel transactions before the fee is imposed. But industry experts say consumers are hooked on convenience and will pay the surcharges, which are on top of other fees their card- issuing bank might levy.
"They charge for everything else, why not for this?" said Jerry O'Shea, a bank customer getting money from another bank's ATM in New York.
David Lee, another ATM user, said he was "disturbed" by the concept, but he "wouldn't walk two extra miles" to avoid a surcharge.
Glenn McDonald, who works for an investment banking firm, called the possible extra charges "outrageous." Still, he uses an ATM four times a week, often paying "foreign" interchange fees.
"I have to cut down," he said. "Weekends are the problem."
Bankers claim the surcharges will help recoup their costs at airports, ski resorts, and other places where customer convenience is at a premium but transaction volumes are relatively low.
"Surcharging will lead to the proliferation of ATMs where financial institutions or nonbanks couldn't make the business case," said Scott Strug, marketing director for NYCE Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. But he added, "If you start to put barriers on people moving away from the teller line, they won't."
"We're hopeful that ATM deployers around the country will move forward cautiously and with the knowledge that you don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg," said Ronald Reed, senior vice president of Visa International.
A major nonbank owner of ATMs, Affiliated Computer Services Inc. of Dallas, imposes surcharges "wherever possible," said Thomas M. Rouse, executive vice president. "I think everybody will do it."
G. Henry Mundt 3d, MasterCard's executive vice president for global deposit access, said "consumers have shown a willingness to pay" in states that have allowed surcharging.
In Georgia, which does permit surcharging, an extra $1 fee has had no apparent effect on usage, said Joy K. Marshall, Wachovia Corp.'s manager of electronic delivery channels. "We haven't gotten any complaints."
Ruth Susswein, director of Bankcard Holders of America, said consumers "certainly are upset, but if everyone is charging a fee" there are few options. "You can't store your money under the mattress."