The country's 12 largest retail banks have increased their median overdraft fees over the last year, and most still don't offer consumers a clear overview of the costs, according to a report issued by the Pew Charitabler Trusts on Thursday.
The non-profit group said four of the top 12 banks including BB&T Corp. (BBT), HSBC Finance Corp., (HTB), Regions Financial (RF), and Capital One Financial Corp. (COF) did not disclose the size of overdraft penalty fees in writing either on checking account home pages or on the Web pages describing specific accounts.
Overdraft penalty fees are assessed when the bank allows customers to spend more than the balance of their checking account. Pew found that the median extended overdraft penalty fee has jumped 32% since 2010 to $35.
Five of the top 12 banks including Wells Fargo (WFC), Citigroup Inc., (NYSE: C), HSBC, Regions and Capital One did not disclose the size of extended overdraft penalty fees in writing either though the information is available to consumers visiting a bank branch. BB&T Corp., HSBC and Capital One also did not disclose fees for non-sufficient funds in a checking account though the fee schedules are available at bank branches, according to the 65-page report.
Pew's group's researchers suggested that all banks create a uniform box similar to a nutrition label that would allow for easy comparison of checking account offerings and fees.
Pew researchers also examined bank disclosures for 274 checking accounts offered by the 12 largest banks. They found that 66% of banks force consumers with checking account disputes into mandatory binding arbitration, where the customer waives the right to a jury trial. Most checking account agreements also ban customers from joining a class-action lawsuit against their bank, the report found.
As a result, banks are increasingly using fee-shifting provisions to push the cost of a legal dispute onto consumers.
"Four of the top 12 banks included clauses in their checking account agreements that require the customer to reimburse the bank for any loss, costs of expenses, including attorneys' fees, incurred as a result of a legal dispute …regardless of who wins the suit," the Pew report states, without identifying the banks.
The report noted some improvements in disclosure, however.
Banks have sharply reduced the length of a bank checking account disclosure statement to a still-cumbersome 69 pages, down from 111 pages a year ago, the report found. The length of disclosure statements is among the most variable ranging from a low of 21 pages of a whopping 153 pages.
Pew researches say banks are not summarizing important policies and fee information in a concise and easy-to-understand format that allows customers to compare account terms and conditions.
The latest report, "Still Risky: An Update on the Safety and Transparency of Checking Accounts," is a part of a Pew project called Safe Checking in the Electronic Age.