FDIC Cracks Down on Overdraft Policies

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Uncle Sam isn’t finished telling banks how to limit overdraft abuses. Now it’s the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation doling out new rules to banks , who increasingly find themselves in a corner when it comes to overdraft practices.

It’s getting pretty crowded in bank legal offices these days, as staff attorneys try to figure out how to keep the golden goose alive – a task growing tougher by the day.

A new law that forces banks to offer customers “opt-out” clauses on bank overdraft protection programs took effect Aug. 15. Bank consumers seem to be on board. A new study from Consumer Affairs reports that 26% of survey respondents have decided to keep the overdraft protection and another 26% say they will. But that leaves 48% who want to opt-out of overdraft protection, which will cut deeply into bank profits from overdraft fees and charges. By some estimates, banks stand to lose up to $40 billion in fees related to overdrafts.

If that doesn't give bank executives nightmares, the news last week that the FDIC is set to issue its own guidance on how banks implement and manage newly revised bank overdraft programs might cause further distress.

The FDIC released proposed guidance for public comment covering three key areas:

How overdraft programs have become short-term, high-cost credit for bank consumers.

How overdrafts have drifted from their original intent – to act as a buffer against accidental overdrafts.

How banks can better accommodate compliance and safety risks related to overdraft programs.

"This guidance proposes common-sense ways to mitigate risks to both consumers and banks. Ensuring that their customers are educated on the appropriate use of overdraft payment programs is just one more example of how community banks understand their customers and play a role in helping individuals find suitable financial products," FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair said in a statement.

The FDIC says it’s receiving a growing number of complaints from consumers regarding negative overdraft experiences, stating that the number of complaints doubled from 2008 to 2009.

Adds Sandra L. Thompson, director of the FDIC's division of supervision and consumer protection; "Overdraft fees can exceed the amount of the overdraft benefit and can occur multiple times in a single day, depending on the type of transaction and clearing practices of the institution. When the cost is extremely high compared with the overdraft benefit, or when over-use of the product is allowed, the result is often customer dissatisfaction with both the product and the institution offering it.”

The FDIC suggests that banks make better use of services that could help customers avoid overdraft penalties, like linking savings accounts to checking accounts, or better promotion of overdraft lines of credit.

Of course, the banks won’t like it – JP Morgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) alone made $1.4 billion on overdraft fees in 2009 – but the days of easy overdraft money seem to be numbered.

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