WASHINGTON - Bank customers could be earning billions of dollars more of interest on their savings and do not know it.

A study of Federal Reserve Board data, commissioned by Providian Financial Corp. and the Consumer Federation of America and released Tuesday, found that 58% of Americans who use traditional savings and money market accounts do not know the interest rate their account pays. Thirty percent said there is little difference between the interest paid by a savings account and that paid by a certificate of deposit.

This "suggests that millions of Americans understand little about the more lucrative savings options available to them," Stephen Brobeck, executive director at the federation, said at a news conference.

Americans keep more than $1 trillion in traditional savings and money market accounts that pay low rates, the study found. By shifting their funds into higher-rate vehicles such as CDs and savings bonds, they could earn $30 billion to $50 billion of additional interest a year, the study said.

Providian chairman and chief executive officer Shailesh Mehta said financial institutions should "help their customers save wisely - through education and by offering attractive savings options."

But if consumers take this advice, it could cost banks.

Last year banks and thrifts paid $218 billion of interest on deposits, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. If the study's estimate of lost earnings potential is correct, banks would have to pay at least 13% more each year.

Those extra costs could be offset by stability from longer-term deposits, customer retention, and fee opportunities, industry officials said.

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