Nearly all banks are imposing surcharges at automated teller machines, and many are raising them, according to a survey by a consumer watchdog group.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group said 93% of institutions levy the extra charge on noncustomers, versus 71% last year and 45% in 1997. This year's survey-conducted last month-covered 336 banks and 31 credit unions.

The average ATM surcharge rose to $1.37, from $1.23 in 1998 and $1.15 in 1997.

Large banks were more likely than smaller ones to impose fees, but small banks are catching up. The research group said 91% of the community banks in this year's survey levy ATM fees, versus 65% a year ago.

Among larger banks, 95% imposed fees, up from 83%.

Citigroup and Chase Manhattan Corp.-the last of the top 10 banking companies to start surcharging-began in February.

The research group began monitoring surcharges shortly after the two national networks-MasterCard International's Cirrus and Visa U.S.A.'s Plus- lifted prohibitions on surcharging in April 1996.

Banks characterize surcharges as "convenience fees" that defray the cost of running large ATM networks, but the study group and other critics say banks are "double-dipping" because they also charge their own customers for using ATMs.

"Consumers should not be charged twice to use the ATM only once," said Edward Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG.

It said Thursday that 97% of respondents levy transaction fees on their own customers for using ATMs outside their home banks' networks-what are called foreign fees.

"It is getting harder and harder for consumers to avoid paying this unfair and predatory fee," said Tracy Shelton, staff attorney for New York PIRG.

Bankers who advocate surcharges say the fees encourage installation of machines at off-premises sites-from airports to shopping malls-where they improve consumer convenience.

"In many areas, the ATM would not be economically justified if the consumer were not willing to pay a fee," said Viveca Ware, director of payment systems for the Independent Community Bankers of America.

The research group contended that the fees are "pure profit" for banks.

Its state chapters also released local information. The New York group, for example, looked at 189 banks and found that 51% surcharge, up from 45% in 1998 and 33% in 1997.

Legislative attempts to ban the fees have all but failed, and the defeat last November of the U.S. Senate's anti-surcharge champion, Alfonse D'Amato of New York, may have put the issue to rest on the federal level.

The national group wants to continue seeking legislative redress. "Even though the numbers are bad, there still are some encouraging signs," Mr. Mierzwinski said.

He cited recent efforts by City Council members in Philadelphia and San Francisco to ban surcharges. Though both initiatives failed, they showed that "people are still mad," Mr. Mierzwinski said.

Surcharge foes have fared better in the courts. In Connecticut and Iowa, courts have upheld bans decreed by state banking commissioners.

Mr. Mierzwinski said he is encouraged by the growth of selective surcharge alliances, in which community banks agree not to surcharge one another's customers. In those alliances, "ATMs are not being used as a weapon against consumers and small banks," he said.

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