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Smackdown: Consumers vs. Banks

five dollar bills full

Want to see people hopping mad? Then tell them, in the midst of a horrible economy, that you're going to charge them a fee for something previously free.

It's Bank of America's turn in the hot seat. A month or so ago it was Wells-Fargo, which floated the idea of merely testing additional ATM fees. We put a link to that story on our AARP Facebook page and asked our members if a fee would make them change banks. The verdict?

If Facebook had been a switchboard  Ernestine would have been tearing her hair out. Comments came fast and furious. The three-word summary: Mad. As. Hell. I feel sorry for the poor customer service people at Bank of America. And their IT people since their web site crashed. Chalk it up to evidence of how social media can help customers have a voice.

People are clearly telling B of A where they can stick their $5 bill. But the decision-makers who give the go-ahead on new fees aren't taking your calls to the bank's toll free number. They don't sit at your branch. They sit in high-rise corner offices around the size of a 1950s 3-bedroom rancher (well, in the old days - some of them have probably had to downsize their offices too).

No one is saying that businesses should not make a profit, and lenders are clearly facing tough times. Bank execs around the country are dealing with lost revenue due to recent regulatory changes and doing what they know: crunching numbers. They're sitting around conference tables looking for ways to improve their bottom lines, as layoffs loom, thinking that five dollars won't be a deal-breaker.

Conversations around kitchen tables are different. If you just got laid off and have to choose between paying rent and that through-the-roof sweltering August electric bill, five dollars matters. When your Social Security check is your only income and you're paying more for Medicare, medications and utilities, five dollars matters.

And we all have a right to be mad. As taxpayers, every American should be hopping mad about banks having to ask for government bailouts after raking in record profits for years and their executives seeing bonuses in the millions. We should be mad at Congress for wasting taxpayer money and all the theatrics and finger-pointing and chronic blame games. Democrats and Republicans are both just as guilty.

We also have a right to be smart consumers and to take our business elsewhere. All of us should know how much we're paying in fees for banking. We have choices. In the wake of the B of A headlines, you can bet that other banks will try to handle things a little differently, as one  Fox Business blogger points out. And credit unions  should be chomping at the bit.

Here's a thought. Before you go elsewhere, let executives at B of A-or any bank-know what that five dollar fee means to you. While you're at it, consider telling the bank representative that you're sorry if they're having an especially rough day. They don't call customer service "the front lines" for nothing.

QUESTION: With fees on the rise are you going to shop around and/or read the fine print on your bank statement a bit more closely? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook.

Photo by CAPow! via Flickr Creative Commons

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