Bank of America revamping debit card fees

By Rick Rothacker and Joe Rauch

The second largest U.S. bank is likely to allow many customers to sidestep the fee by taking measures such as maintaining minimum balances, having paychecks direct deposited, or using Bank of America credit cards, the person said.

Under earlier plans, customers might have needed balances totaling $20,000 across all their Bank of America accounts to skip the fee.

The reworking comes as a major rival has quietly pulled back on the charges. After testing a $3 per month fee in two states since February, JPMorgan Chase & Co has decided not to charge customers, a person familiar with the situation said on Friday. The test will end next month and will not be extended or expanded, the person added.

Bank of America unleashed a firestorm of criticism from customers, consumer advocates and politicians last month when it disclosed plans to charge customers $5 per month for using their debit cards, starting sometime next year. The goal was to make up revenue lost to a law that slashes the fees banks charge retailers when consumers swipe their cards.

While some banks have disclosed plans to apply similar fees, many banks and credit unions decided not to institute the charge and have encouraged customers to switch banks.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America is not abandoning the fee now and will likely include it in new account types the bank is testing in three states. The bank plans to roll out these packages nationwide next year.

The $5 per-month fee may still remain an option for customers, the person said.

The bank has said the purpose of the new account types is to provide customers with upfront pricing, instead of hitting them with penalties after the fact. Customers can pay monthly fees of between $9 and $20, or avoid the charges by keeping minimum balances, using their credit cards or having a minimum amount deposited to their account.

Among other banks, Wells Fargo & Co started testing a $3 per-month fee in five states on October 14. The bank has not had time to evaluate results and has not made any changes in the program, Wells spokeswoman Lisa Westermann said.

Richard Davis, CEO of US Bancorp, said during an October 19 conference call with analysts the Minneapolis-based regional bank is monitoring the results of other banks imposing debit card fees. Davis did not rule out instituting a fee in the future, but said the bank has no immediate plans to do so.

"We will find out if customers complain and move, or just complain," he said. "We will take all that in time and we will make our decision."

SunTrust Banks Inc is charging a $5 per-month fee on everyday checking account customers who make purchases. A spokesman declined to comment on the bank's strategy.

Norma Garcia, manager of Consumers Union's financial services program, applauded JPMorgan's decision, but said that, without more details, it was unclear if Bank of America's changes would be better for customers.

"Clearly, there is overwhelming public support to drop the fee," she added.

(Reporting by Rick Rothacker and Joe Rauch in Charlotte, North Carolina; editing by Andre Grenon)