WASHINGTON - Banks are gouging consumers by boosting account fees and minimum balance requirements, according to a survey released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Transaction account fees have risen at twice the rate of inflation while charges for checking accounts are up 10% in the two-year period ending April 1995, the group said.

Fees for NOW accounts rose 11%, and charges for savings accounts jumped 9%. By contrast, the consumer price index increased by only 5.5% during that period.

"It's clear that everyone pays too much," said Ed Mierzwinski, program director of the public interest group and co-author of the report. Banks have a "three-part strategy to gouge consumers. They raise existing fees. They invent new fees. And, they make more people pay fees, by raising (necessary minimum) balances to avoid fees."

Virginia Stafford, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, said the effect of the fee hike has been overstated.

No bank can overprice its services without knocking itself out of the running for consumers' attention, she said. "In this intensely competitive market, consumers have the upper hand."

But Karen Thomas, director of regulatory affairs for the Independent Bankers Association of America, said customers could avoid rate hikes by doing their homework.

"Consumers need to manage their accounts better in order to pay minimal fees," Ms. Thomas said. "They need to be more aware, and they need to not be afraid to shop around for services."

The survey included 271 banks in 25 states and the District of Columbia, and results were compared to those of a 1993 survey covering 300 banks in 23 states.

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