Banks Hiding the Most from Customers

By Mike Sauter24/7 Wall St.

From debit card fees to overdraft charges, consumers need clearer policies from their banks to understand checking accounts, according to a report released by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The report identified seven “best” practices and 11 “good” practices that protect consumers by ensuring banks properly disclose relevant information, reduce or eliminate overdraft fees, and provide fair dispute resolution.

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The extent to which banks are transparent varies considerably. Out of the 36 banks considered by Pew, eight of them had 12 or more good and best practices combined, with Ally Bank following the most practices. Meanwhile, six banks followed with five or fewer. First Niagara, which observed no best practices and only five good practices, had the lowest possible score.

These are America’s least transparent banks.

6. BBVA Compass > Number of best practices: 1 > Number of good practices: 4 > Total assets: $740 billion (Compass Bancshares) > Primary region: South, Southwest

BBVA Compass is a subsidiary of Compass Bancshares Inc., which has a presence in more than 30 countries worldwide and has about $740 billion in assets. The bank had some of the worst policies and transparency among all banks, following just one of seven best practices and only four of the 11 good practices that were outlined by Pew. For instance, unlike a majority of the 36 banks surveyed, the bank did not prohibit or limit the reordering of transactions, which is often used by banks to generate more overdraft penalties. This was despite the fact that in July 2012, the bank agreed to pay $11.5 million to settle allegations that it manipulated checking-account transactions in order to garner more overdraft fees.

5. First Tennessee > Number of best practices: 1 > Number of good practices: 4 > Total assets: $25.2 billion (First Horizon) > Primary region: Tennessee

First Tennessee, a subsidiary of First Horizon National Corp. (NYSE: FHN), operates 180 branches exclusively in Tennessee. First Tennessee was among a minority of all banks surveyed that did not disclose a specific fee for an overdraft transfer — a policy that allows people to avoid overdrafting by automatically transferring money from another designated account. It was also one of just a small group of banks not to offer an opportunity for customers to opt-out of arbitration, a dispute resolution process taking place outside of the courtroom. On the positive side, it was the only bank among the least transparent that allowed overdrafts up to a certain amount before an overdraft fee was triggered.

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4. Sovereign Bank > Number of best practices: 1 > Number of good practices: 4 > Total assets: $1.2 trillion (Santander) > Primary region: Nationwide

Sovereign Bank is a subsidiary of Santander Group, one of the largest banks in Spain. Sovereign operates more than 750 branches and 2,300 ATMs across the country. It was one of just two banks out of all 36 measured that did not adhere to a single best or good practice meant to help customers avoid overdraft charges. For example, it was one of a small handful of banks to not include a limit on the number of overdraft fees it charged per day, a policy aimed to help prevent people from incurring massive charges for minor overdrafts.

To view the complete list of the least transparent banks, please visit 24/7 Wall St.