WASHINGTON -- A survey by a pair of consumer groups found that fees for consumer checking and savings accounts jumped 28% in the period 1990-1993, easily outpacing inflation.

Both the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Federation of America surveyed 300 banks in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

"Fees...have now mushroomed into clearly exorbitant consumer price gouging," Chris Lewis, the federation's director of banking and housing policy, told a press conference. He noted that banks had $32.2 billion in record profits last year.

Phillip Corwin, American Bankers Association director of retail banking, dismissed the findings as ill-informed. "In a competitive marketplace, no bank has the power to gouge consumers," he said. "Consumers are not stupid," he added; they'll go someplace else.

Bud Edmund Mierzwinski, PIRG's consumer program director, accused bankers of a devious, three-tier strategy to cheat consumers. Banks have raised fees, increased minimum balances, and invented new fees, he said, noting that the 225 different fees found in the survey.

Discovering Banks' |Real Burden'

The consumer advocate also sniffed at the "phony regulatory-burden campaign" he said banks had launched to account for fee increases. "The real burden is carrying the money they're making off consumers into their vaults," he said.

In calculating the annual costs of keeping an account, the survey included maintenance fees, per-check charges, automated teller machine fees, and charges for bounced checks and deposit items returned. The survey's premise was that consumers write roughly 15 checks a month, bounce one, and use ATMs 25 times. Mr. Corwin called these assumptions "arbitrary."

The survey also found that:

* A regular checking account would cost a consumer $184 this year, 18.5% more than in 1990. "Off-us" ATM fees now average $1.10, a 37% increase from 1990.

* A $600 interest-bearing NOW account costs $186 in annual fees, up 40% from 1990. Consumers need a $725 balance to break even, compared with $135 in 1990.

Mr. Reerink writes for the Medill News Service.

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