Six Banks Hiding the Most From Customers

June 4, 2013 by Mike Sauter

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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 Trusts.

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.

One of the best practices requires what many consumers would consider the bare minimum. It recommends the use of a summary disclosure box on the checking account agreement form that would identify all the fees and policies for accounts. “Consumers should not have to hunt for this important information about their account,” Susan Weinstock, director of the Safe Checking Project at Pew Charitable Trust, told 24/7 Wall St. in an interview. A box disclosing this “should be like a nutrition label.”

The good practices are “those that provide some protection to consumers but are not as expansive or effective as best practices.” For example, good practices include the disclosure of penalty fees for overdrafts and identifying the overdraft default option.

Five of the six banks with the lowest scores according to Pew’s measure only observed one best practice. Dispute resolution agreements for these banks, like nearly all the 36 banks considered, do not require customers to cover bank expenses, such as attorney fees, even if the customer wins the dispute. Weinstock said this “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” provision could discourage consumers from fighting unnecessary charges in their accounts. First Niagara Bank failed to observe even this best practice.

The banks on this list performed poorly in many of the good practices as well. For example, none of these banks let customers know they had options for avoiding overdraft fees. Nor did any of these banks provide a grace period before charging overdraft fees.

Only two of the banks, Sovereign Bank and BBVA Compass, disclosed the fee for overdraft transfers — a practice that allows money to be transferred from another account to prevent negative balances. Of the six least transparent banks, only First Tennessee included a dollar amount that an account holder must overdraw before being charged an overdraft fee.

Based on the 50 largest banks in terms of total deposits measured by the Pew Charitable Trust report, “Checks and Balances: Measuring Checking Accounts’ Safety and Transparency,” 24/7 Wall St. identified the six least transparent banks. These banks have implemented one or fewer of the seven best practices. In addition, the banks implemented four or fewer of the 11 good practices that Pew identified. While Pew initially considered the 50 largest banks, 14 of the banks did not provide information, narrowing the field to just 36 banks. According to Pew, this information was compiled in October and November of 2012. As a result, some banks’ practices may have changed since that time.

These are America’s least transparent banks.

6. BBVA Compass
> Number of best practices: 1
> Number of good practices: 4
> Total assets: $811 billion (BBVA Group)
> Primary region: South, Southwest

BBVA Compass is a subsidiary of BBVA Compass Bancshares Inc., which is itself a subsidiary of BBVA Group. BBVA group has a presence in 32 countries worldwide and has roughly $811 billion in assets as of May 2013. 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. A company spokesman told 24/7 Wall St. that the bank stopped this policy in September.

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.

3. Union Bank
> Number of best practices: 1
> Number of good practices: 4
> Total assets: $97 billion
> Primary region: Six states

The San Francisco-based Union Bank, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: MTU), has 443 retail branches in California, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Illinois and New York. It was one of just a few banks that did not allow those opening debit accounts to opt out of arbitration. In addition, the bank failed to identify a specific dollar threshold overdraft fees were triggered, nor did it disclose the overdraft fee for people applying for an account. Back in November 2011, the bank agreed to pay $35 million to settle a lawsuit claiming it had charged debit card transactions in a different order than the purchases were made in order to generate overdraft fees.

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2. KeyBank
> Number of best practices: 1
> Number of good practices: 3
> Total assets: $89 billion
> Primary region: 14 states

Cleveland-based KeyBank provides a wide range of financial services, including consumer banking, investment banking and wealth management. It has $89 billion in assets under management and 1,076 branches spread over 14 U.S states. In addition to adhering to just one of seven best practices, KeyBank followed only three of the 11 good practices laid out by Pew, fewer than any of the 36 banks considered. It was the only bank on this list, and one of just five banks overall, that did not allow relatively minor disputes to go through small claims court rather than mandatory arbitration.

1. First Niagara
> Number of best practices: 0
> Number of good practices: 5
> Total assets: $35 billion
> Primary region: Northeast

No bank was less transparent than First Niagara, a regional bank serving upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It was the only bank out of all 36 measured by Pew that failed to conform to any of the best practices laid out in the report. In addition, it only adhered to five of the 11 good practices laid out by Pew, lower than most other banks considered. It was the only bank on the list, and one of just three banks of all 36 measured, that did not disclose its overdraft penalty to people with a checking account.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the asset size of BBVA Compass as $740 billion in error. In fact, the number referred to BBVA Compass’ parent, BBVA Group. The asset size of BBVA Compass has been changed to $811 billion to reflect the most current asset size of the parent company.