The repeated failure of legislative efforts to ban automated teller machine surcharges has not dampened the zeal of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which came out Thursday with one of its periodic reports on rising ATM fees, but it may have made the message seem slightly out-of-date.
On Thursday the group held news conferences in Washington and New York to publicize the latest of its periodic surveys of ATM fees. The surveys are meant to muster public sentiment against surcharging. But in light of recent court rulings around the country that it is legal for banks to impose surcharges, even the efforts of legislators who showed up to back the popular consumer issue may not be enough.
Peter F. Vallone, the speaker of the New York City Council, who sponsored a measure last year to ban surcharges in New York, said that the survey confirmed that banks are guilty as surcharged, but that his bill, which he has modified and reintroduced, is unlikely to pass, because of rulings in the California courts against similar legislation.
Mr. Vallone, who is running for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, said his bill has been revised to make it judicially as palatable as possible, one that will survive an attack that is sure to be brought by the banks.
On April 1, 1996, Cirrus and Plus, the national ATM networks owned by MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A., respectively, began letting banks charge noncustomers to use their machines.
Since then, U.S. PIRG has marked the anniversary by making public statements against ATM fees, often accompanied by statistics about how much the fees have risen.
On Thursday the group released the results of its first ATM survey since 1999, a March poll of 333 banks and 43 credit unions in 25 states and the District of Columbia. PIRG said the average surcharge at bank ATMs this year is $1.47, 10 cents higher than in 1999.
The group conducted two similar surveys in 1996 and one each in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Last year, instead of a survey, it released a white paper titled ATM Fee Backlash.
To dramatize how much ATM fees have risen since Cirrus and Plus began charging for ATM service, U.S. PIRG tried this year to emphasize the five-year change. There were no surcharges in 1995, and that foreign fees, which consumers have always paid to use ATMs not owned by their banks, rose to an average of $1.39 this year from $1.01 in 1995, the group said.
The American Bankers Association said it conducted its own survey of 1,000 consumers in March and found that 57% paid no ATM fees in any given month, and that 11% said their monthly fees amounted to less than $3.
The ABA also said that surcharging has led to mass deployment of ATMs, which has translated into far more convenience for consumers. The number of machines has more than doubled since 1995, to 273,000, the trade group said.
Today, consumers have more choices than ever to get cash, when and where they want it, Donald G. Ogilvie, executive vice president of the ABA, said in a press statement. Access fees have led to an explosion of new ATMs in places that previously couldnt support them due to low usage, such as theaters, hospitals, and neighborhood markets.
Cindy Ballard, the executive vice president of Pulse EFT Association, a Houston electronic funds transfer network, said consumers are well aware of the ATM fees and how to avoid them. There are a lot of alternatives for those who dont want to pay those fees, including taking money out at ones own bank ATMs and getting cash back at point of terminals when using debit cards, she said.
The industrys arguments and the legal decisions over surcharges have not squelched U.S. PIRGs call for national legislation abolishing surcharging, or its efforts to rally public opinion against the fees.
Ed Mierzwinski, the groups consumer program director, said Thursday that banks surcharge because they can, not because they need to.
Surcharges are highest in the Southeast and lowest in the Northeast, he said.