The Year of the Fees
If there’s a surefire way to tick off consumers, it’s by tacking on extra charges to the products and services they rely on. We saw quite a bit of this in 2011, with everyone from big banks to airline companies instituting fees – or hiking old ones – to generate additional revenue.
While some of the fees were met with little resistance, others ignited a firestorm of consumer outrage, prompting Americans to rally around widespread protests and petitions.
So here they are, the stupidest fees of 2011. Read on for details of each – and find out whether the charges could affect your wallet.
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Debit Card Fees
Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) takes the cake when it comes to instituting the most loathed fee of 2011. When the bank announced in late September it would start charging its customers a $5 monthly fee for using debit cards at merchants beginning in 2012, a harsh consumer backlash followed.
The fee was created to recoup lost revenue caused by the Durbin Amendment, a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act that reduced the fee banks could charge retailers for debit card purchases. But consumers had no pity, and a social uprising called Bank Transfer Day mobilized consumers to switch from their big bank to a smaller bank or credit union on Nov. 5. According to the Credit Union National Association, some 690,000 consumers joined credit unions in the roughly four weeks ending Bank Transfer Day.
On Nov. 1, Bank of America announced that it would cancel the fee in response to “consumer concerns.” But Bank of America wasn’t the only big bank that scrapped its debit fee plans this fall due to consumer complaints: JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) and Wells Fargo (Stock Quote: WFC) also axed programs they were testing.
If there’s anything we can learn from the debit fee debacle, it’s this: Never underestimate the power – and scorn – of the American public.
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Starbucks ‘Hidden’ Bean Fee
Starbucks brewed up controversy this year when it was discovered that the beloved coffee chain was charging a hidden $1.50 surcharge for customers who wanted only to buy a half-pound of beans at a time. For instance, coffee that was $12 per pound cost $7.50 for a half-pound, rather than $6. While Starbucks is free to charge whatever it wants, what made the fee deceptive was that the company never listed it on the receipt or advertised it in the store.
After an official investigation by the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation, Starbucks was fined $1,575. While this hardly makes a dent in the company’s finances, Starbucks (Stock Quote: SBUX) decided to nix the fee nationwide last month to the delight of coffee fanatics everywhere.
Photo Credit: Josue Goge
Spirit Airlines Fee
Unless you feel like trekking to the airport to buy a Spirit Airlines ticket, you’ll be charged a $16.99 “passenger usage fee” for buying online. This charge was hiked from $8.99 up in early November, nearly doubling in price.
While Spirit Airlines (Stock Quote: SAVE) is known for its cheap fares, it adds a host of fees onto the base ticket price, including charges for bringing a carry-on bag and buying drinks on board. Spirit’s fees remind us of that old adage: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Photo Credit: Sommer Poquette
Gift Card Fees
Planning to pick up some gifts cards for friends and family this holiday season? Just be aware that extra charges can be applied to the buyer and the recipient. According to the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, purchase fees may be charged when you buy a gift card in addition to the money you pay to load on the card.
That means if you buy a gift card for $25 or $50, you could end up paying a good bit more. In fact, The Associated Press recently reported that gift cards from American Express, Chase and Wells Fargo charge purchase fees in the area of $3 to $7.
As we've reported, the COC also warns of charges that the gift-card recipient may incur:
1. Inactivity, dormancy or service fees may apply only if there has been no activity on the card for at least one year. By law, only one dormancy, inactivity or service fee may be imposed in any calendar month.
2. Transaction fees for using the card. This may be for all transactions, for a large number of transactions or only certain types of transactions, such as ATM withdrawals.
3. Miscellaneous fees include those for balance inquiries, adding funds to the card, replacing a lost or stolen card or other services related to the card.
The lesson learned: Don’t take gift cards at face value – literally.
Photo Credit: buba6
‘Deceptive’ Ticketmaster Fees
Most of us who order event tickets online probably don’t look too closely at the charges added during the final checkout process, but two Ticketmaster customers did some detective work and filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the company’s order processing fees and UPS Expedited Delivery prices are “excessive” and “deceptive.” Ticketmaster is disputing each of the claims.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2003 by California residents Curt Schlesinger and Peter Lo Re, and a decision will be made at a court hearing May 29.
“Plaintiffs assert that Ticketmaster’s order processing fee is deceptive and leads consumers to believe that it represents Ticketmaster’s costs to process their orders, and that the order processing fee is just a profit component for Ticketmaster, unrelated to the costs of processing the orders,” the lawsuit reads. It also alleges that “Ticketmaster substantially marks up the amount it actually pays to UPS.”
If you bought tickets on Tickemaster’s Web site between Oct. 21, 1999, and Oct. 19, 2011, you could be eligible to participate in the suit. If the case is decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, you could get discounts of $1.50 per transaction you made during that time period, for a maximum of 17 transactions, that can be applied to future transactions. And if you paid a UPS delivery price for your ticket purchases during this time over the Web site, you’ll be entitled to additional discounts off future delivery fees – $5 for each transaction (up to a maximum of 17 transactions).
Photo Credit: nerdy girl
Prepaid Card Fees
Prepaid debit cards are a popular option for people whose credit score is too low to get approved for a traditional credit card. The cards even come without overdraft fees, minimum balances or interest charges. The catch: Many prepaid credit cards carry hefty fees that can really set you back – including annual fees (we’ve seen some up to about $150), plus reloading fees, ATM withdrawal fees and monthly maintenance fees.
Even though these prepaid cards aren’t the best option for many, they are the only option for some. So we sought the help of experts to round up the best prepaid debit cards right now. Included in the list was the Wal-Mart Money Card from Green Dot, which has monthly fees estimated to be about $12.50 – relatively low in comparison with other prepaid cards.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Checking Account Charges
Just because the big banks have nixed their debit card charges doesn’t mean bank customers are fee-free, and many major banks are now instituting checking account charges that are raising eyebrows.
For instance, starting this December Citibank (Stock Quote: C) will charge $20 a month to customers with midtier checking accounts unless the customer has combined balances of at least $15,000 in checking, savings and investment accounts or loan balances. Previously, the fee was waived for customers with this type of account who had combined balances of $6,000.
TD Bank (Stock Quote: TD) also plans to start charging a fee this month – a $9 fee for any savings account customer who makes more than six withdrawals or transfers from that account in a given month. The fee was instituted in response to Regulation D, a federal regulation that discourages customers from using their savings accounts as checking accounts by capping the number of monthly withdrawals at six. Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) is also responding by charging fees if a customer makes more than three savings account withdrawals in a given month when the balance is below $2,500, and the bank will convert a customer’s savings account to a checking account if more than six withdrawals are made in a month.
But there is some good news for JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) checking-account holders. Last month the bank ended a test program in Oklahoma in which consumers were charged a $10 monthly checking account fee that couldn’t be waived through direct deposits or online banking requirements. The bank will also call off a $15 monthly checking account fee – tested in Atlanta – that could be waived only if a customer maintains a minimum daily balance of $1,500 or a combined $5,000 in deposit and investment accounts.
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Greyhound ‘Gift’ Fee
If you’re looking to buy a friend a Greyhound ticket, it’s going to cost you. The bus company charges an $18 “gift ticket fee” when a credit card holder buys a ticket for someone else online.
The fee caught the attention of some customers, who organized a Change.org petition urging Greyhound to eliminate the charge. The petition claims that the fee “puts an extra burden on all customers who wish to purchase tickets for friends and family members – sometimes even doubling a ticket’s cost – but it falls hardest on low-income customers who are trying to help others who cannot afford a bus ticket.”
What does Greyhound have to say for itself? Last month the bus company told MainStreet that the surcharge’s purpose is to counteract fees incurred by the company for credit card fraud and serves as a handling fee for providing the ticket to the recipient at will call.
Photo Credit: Vincent Desjardins