Bank of America: No More Free Checking for Customers With Low Balances

By Rachel Louise Ensign Features Dow Jones Newswires

Bank of America Corp. has eliminated a free checking account popular with some lower-income customers, requiring them to keep more money at the bank to avoid a monthly fee.

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This month, all remaining eBanking customers with the Charlotte, N.C., lender were switched into accounts that charge a $12 monthly fee unless the customer has a $250 or more direct deposit or a minimum daily balance of $1,500 or more. Other eBanking customers were switched over as early as 2015.

Some customers are unhappy about the move: A petition protesting the change has garnered more than 45,000 signatures on Change.org.

James Prather, a 32-year-old freelance writer from Tampa, had one of the accounts for years until the bank switched him out of it on Friday. Mr. Prather earns less than $20,000 a year and doesn't get paid through direct deposit, so he expects to be charged the monthly fee. He wants to avoid that expense, so is hoping to move his checking account to a credit union that doesn't charge a fee. "I'm such a budgeter. Being poor, you have to count every dime that you have," Mr. Prather said.

The eBanking accounts were first introduced by Bank of America in 2010 when the bank was starting to encourage customers to do more business on their computers and phones. The accounts had no monthly fee so long as customers didn't use a bank teller for routine transactions and agreed to receive their statements online. At the time the product was introduced, customers were charged an $8.95 monthly fee if they used these services. Bank of America stopped offering the product to new customers in 2013. But those who already had the account were allowed to keep it.

The second largest U.S. bank by assets, Bank of America under CEO Brian Moynihan has transformed its consumer business, reducing the number of products available and encouraging customers to keep their main checking account with the bank. The lender has also cut its branch network, focusing on major urban areas instead of less profitable rural locations. The changes have made the bank's consumer business more efficient and profitable, helping push Bank of America's stock price higher.

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"For anyone who chooses us as their primary bank relationship, with a direct deposit of just $250 [per] month or $3,000 [per] year, they'll get full access to all of our financial centers, ATMs, mobile and online banking," a Bank of America spokeswoman said. "That's a great value and our client satisfaction scores are at all-time highs."

The bank has a checking account geared toward lower-income customers, which has a monthly $4.95 fee and doesn't allow customers to write paper checks or overdraw their account, which typically comes with a large fee.

Banks have long grappled with how to charge customers for basic checking services. The accounts are costly for banks to maintain, though they do bring in revenue through overdraft and other fees.

Bank of America in 2011 also faced a backlash when it planned to charge a $5 monthly fee for making purchases with a debit card. It eventually backed off the plan.

Write to Rachel Louise Ensign at rachel.ensign@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 22, 2018 08:10 ET (13:10 GMT)