Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato continued his diatribe against ATM surcharges Wednesday, but his bill to ban the fees is unlikely to pass.
At a hearing Wednesday, the New York Republican released the results of a General Accounting Office study showing fees are now charged at 64,400 ATMs, a 320% increase in the 13 months ended Feb. 1.
"This abusive practice is spreading like wildfire, and consumers across the country are getting burned," Sen. D'Amato said. "If the banks think we are not watching them, they are wrong. This is outrageous, and we are going to stop it."
However, Sen. D'Amato's bill to ban surcharges, introduced Wednesday and identical to a measure he sponsored last year, is not supported by the other Republicans on his committee.
"There is not enough support for this bill to get it out of the committee," Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., said in an interview outside the hearing room.
The GAO based its 12-page report on a survey of 246 U.S. banks. Extrapolating from that base, the congressional watchdog agency estimated that 2,900 of 8,600 banks that operate ATMs impose surcharges, which are levied on users who do not have an account with the bank that owns the machine.
However, the GAO conceded that the small sample clouded the results. For example, the agency said the number of institutions charging the fees could range from 1,500 to 4,300.
At the hearing, Sen. D'Amato criticized banks for "double charging" customers, and he threatened to subpoena data on transaction costs from ATM operators.
ATM users can pay more than one fee. In addition to surcharges, a switching fee can be levied on the bank by the ATM network for processing each transaction. Banks sometimes pass this cost along to their customers. In addition, machine users can end up paying interchange fees, which ATM owners charge a noncustomer's bank for handling a transaction.
Banks "have decided to soak consumers with multiple fees every time they need to take money out of their accounts," Sen. D'Amato said.
"Surcharging is anti-consumer, since ATM owners already receive an adequate fee from the consumer's own bank," said Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who testified at Wednesday's hearing.
However, industry representatives argued that banks have a right to charge noncustomers who use their ATMs.
"Why shouldn't somebody charge you to use their equipment if you are not their customer?" asked Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, after the hearing.
Republican lawmakers noted that GAO did not assess the cost of operating ATMs. According to the American Bankers Association, the cost ranges from $30,000 to $50,000. Maintaining an ATM can cost as much as $30,000 a year, the ABA said.
If surcharges are banned, "thousands of ATMS set up for consumer convenience would immediately be shut down," said Edward L. Yingling, the ABA's executive director of government relations.
"We should not do anything in the name of protecting the consumer that would ultimately cut down on customer opportunity," agreed Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
Because his bill has little chance of passing, industry lobbyists have accused Sen. D'Amato-anonymously, of course-of using his opposition to ATM fees to improve his standing with home-state voters.
One source was willing to go on the record Wednesday: Rep. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who plans to challenge Sen. D'Amato next year.
"When Sen. D'Amato pushes a bill that eliminates ATM fees-a bill he knows can't pass-it shows he has pre-election jitters," Rep. Schumer said. The House Banking Committee member has introduced a bill that would require ATM operators to disclose surcharges.