WASHINGTON - A consumer rights organization is calling on the banking industry to revise the signature card form that customers must sign to open an account.
The Center for the Study of Responsive Law, a Ralph Nader enterprise, charged that consumers do not realize that these signature cards are actually contracts, with binding provisions.
"I've talked to consumers, and when they are given a signature card to sign, they think it is so the bank can compare their signature to a check's signature," center researcher Janice Shields said.
But the cards actually allow the bank to change the terms and fees for the account at any time, she said. And some signature cards even force customers to bring their disputes to mandatory arbitration, rather than to the courts, she said.
"We want consumers to be very aware that they are signing a signature card that is a contract, and if they shop around it doesn't mean a bank isn't going to change its fees," Ms. Shields said.
The group based its comments on signature cards collected from Washington-area banks. Ms. Shields pointed to a card from Crestar Bank, a subsidiary of the Richmond, Va.-based Crestar Financial Corp., as an example of what is wrong with the current setup.
The Crestar document is titled "Personal Account Signature Card." But after several lines for a customer's signature and personal information, the document includes five lines of text that allows it to change the terms of the account without notice.
Documents like this are misleading and must be changed, Ms. Shields. Bankers should relabel signature cards as "contracts" and should highlight in bold print the provisions that allow banks to change fees and impose arbitration, she said.
Mr. Nader said consumers are getting tired of banks that constantly try to take advantage of them.
"This time the banks have gone too far," Mr. Nader said. "There is going to be a backlash."
A Federal Reserve Board official in the division of consumer and community affairs said Wednesday that the central bank has no plans to examine the signature card issue.
James McLaughlin, director of regulatory affairs at the American Bankers Association, said the consumer group was making a big deal out of a minor matter.
"What you are saying is, they are basically disagreeing with the title," Mr. McLaughlin said. "Don't they have anything better to worry about?"