Here’s a letter sent to who knows how many millions of Chase customers by press darling Jamie Dimon:
“Your debit card may not work the same way anymore, even if you just made a deposit. Unless we hear from you,” the message, emblazoned in large red type, warns. “If you don’t contact us, your everyday debit card transactions that overdraw your account will not be authorized after August 15, 2010 — even in an emergency,” with “even in an emergency” underlined for emphasis.
And then there’s the in-person hard sell:
A spokesman for Chase said: “We have begun to reach out to customers and are encouraging them to sit down with a branch banker to make sure they understand overdraft services, which can be confusing. We want them to make an informed decision.”
When consumers get to the bank, another pitch awaits. Mark Sorenson went into a Dallas branch of Bank of America to turn off the overdraft function on his debit card recently and got a distressing response.
Beware, his banker cautioned. If Mr. Sorenson used the card to buy gas, the station might place a hold on his account and he might not be able to fill up at all, even if he had enough money in the bank to cover a full tank.
“My impression was that it was something he’d been briefed on,” said Mr. Sorenson, an architect who said he had tired of paying multiple fees when the bank automatically covered shortfalls on his debit card. “He was trying it out on me.”
Those anecdotes were reported by The New York Times in an excellent piece in February by Andrew Martin and Ron Lieber.
In March, more than 200 banks paid $199 each to participate in an Internet seminar hosted by David Peterson, a banking-industry consultant who advises banks to consider bundling overdraft protection with other services for a monthly fee. A 40-page presentation that accompanied his lecture includes a profile of a typical overdraft user, described as a person who doesn’t pay attention to account balances, lives paycheck to paycheck, and will engage in a transaction despite knowing it will generate a fee.
The seminar also includes several pages detailing the “five stages of overdraft grief,” which includes “shock and denial,” “pain and guilt,” “anger and bargaining,” “depression” and “acceptance.”
That’s nothing more than textbook predatory lending—an awful lot like the payday-loan industry: Get poor people on a debt treadmill that they can’t get off and suck them dry with usurious interest rates couched as fees.
Alas, pieces like the NYT’s and WSJ’s were few and far between, which is why folks like Indiviglio and even the Journal itself can get by with ignoring them.
But all may not be lost. Consumer Union released poll results reporting that 22 percent of bank customers have opted in to overdrafts. The Journal didn’t report that. That’s another big miss, especially given that it relied entirely on a banking industry consultant for its report.
So which is it? Seventy-five percent or twenty-two percent? My guess would be that it’s closer to the former, unfortunately. Moebs says its surveyed banks, who surely have stats on this, while Consumer Union asked consumers themselves.
And I suspect that there are a lot of people who opted in for overdraft protection who don’t know that they did so.
Which is just one more reason why this calls out for more and better press coverage.