In this update to Hidden Risks: The Case for Safe and Transparent Checking Accounts (April 2011), Pew’s Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project continues its study of checking account terms and conditions to examine both the state of the marketplace and the effect of current regulations. This study revisits and expands on the original research of the 10 largest banks by collecting additional data found online from the 12 largest banks and the 12 largest credit unions (as determined by their domestic deposit volumes). There continue to be key banking practices that put consumers at financial risk and potentially expose them to high and unexpected costs for little benefit.
As 9 out of 10 American adults have checking accounts, which serve as the cornerstone of household financial management, it is imperative that consumers be aware of what these accounts entail. They allow for the deposit of earnings, the ability to pay bills by check and online, and an opportunity to build a relationship with a financial institution that will open the door to more sophisticated financial products and services. Checking accounts provide a safe location for depositing money and let accountholders make financial decisions free from worries about monetary theft or loss. Research shows that those who have a bank account can better weather economic storms and save more money than those who do not. However, there are still risks to the consumer. Indeed, it is estimated that overdraft fees cost Americans $29.5 billion in 2011.
October 2012 Update: See the Safe Checking Project's expanded and updated Still Risky online tools, featuring a 50-state data map with downloadable factsheets and a bank disclosure quiz.
Still Risky: An Update on the Safety and Transparency of Checking Accounts finds the following practices that may harm consumers:
- Financial institutions do not summarize important policies and fee information in a uniform, concise, and easy-to-understand format that allows customers to compare account terms and conditions.
- Financial institutions do not provide accountholders with clear and comprehensive information about overdraft options and their costs.
- Certain overdraft fees have increased.
- All 12 banks either already reorder withdrawals from highest to lowest dollar amount or reserve the right to do so without notice to the customer, thus maximizing overdraft fees.
Based on findings in this report and in Hidden Risks, Pew continues to recommend policy solutions that protect consumers, promote a competitive marketplace, and foster a level playing field among financial institutions.