Consumers may be angry about automated teller machine surcharges, but that isn't stopping them from using machines that charge fees, according to a survey sponsored by Star Systems Inc., the nation's largest ATM network.

Star will report today that ATM/debit cardholders use "foreign" ATMs nearly 4 out of 10 times, on average. Curiously, the same survey found that 70% of respondents would favor the elimination of fees even if it reduced the number of ATMs they could use.

The survey was conducted late last year by Applied Management and Planning Group, an independent research firm in Los Angeles. It questioned 8,486 consumers, 85% of whom described themselves as active ATM cardholders.

Executives at Star, which is based in Maitland, Fla., said the survey results show that actions speak louder than words. With respondents saying that they conduct nearly 40% of their ATM transactions at machines that charge fees, Star concluded that consumers "value the convenience and access of foreign ATMs, even with surcharges," said Barbara Span, a Star spokeswoman.

Surcharging returned as a high-profile consumer issue last fall, when San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., became the first municipalities to approve ordinances banning the fees - and, subsequently, the first to be sued by big banks. The fees have become a convenient rallying point for politicians, and several other municipalities, including New York City, have proposed or approved similar ordinances.

Banking interests have routinely argued that curbs on surcharging will only hurt consumers in the long run, as it will limit the number of convenient places to get cash. In Santa Monica, for instance, Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. turned off their machines to all noncustomers after the ban was enacted there. The majority of consumers interviewed do not care about limiting access, at least in theory.

Ms. Span said the phone study, administered in 20 states and Washington, D.C., is one of the largest consumer surveys in the electronic payments services industry to date.

The survey found that ATM cardholders use their cards an average of 17 times a month - nine times at an ATM and eight times in a store. Of the nine ATM transactions, 3.3 are at "foreign" ATMs - machines owned by a deployer other than the consumer's bank. Since more than 80% of ATMs charge the noncustomer surcharges, more than likely cardholders were hit with a fee during those 3.3 transactions.

In separate findings, 50% of cardholders preferred online debit transactions, in which they used a personal identification number.

Thirty-one percent favored the offline mode, which requires a signature, and 11% said they didn't care or used both methods.

Of those who preferred PIN-activated transactions, 50% liked the security aspects, 15% said it was easier, and 15% said it was quicker. Of those who desired signature-activated mode, the No. 1 reason, given by 29%, was the ease of the transaction.

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