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Banks Improve, But Need to Do More on Fee Disclosure

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While most banks are improving on disclosing account fees, a new study finds the disclosure documents are often confusing. featurepics.com

Most of us - nine out of 10 American households - have a checking account. We expect our bank to be fair about its fees and to disclose clearly all terms and conditions, especially those that could cost us money.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts released on Tuesday.

While many banks are doing a better job of disclosing account fees, terms and conditions, Pew researchers found that these documents are often "long, unintelligible and opaque."

The report concluded that "the prevalence of harmful overdraft fees and account terms showed little change or grew worse," in the last few years. And it called on the federal government to develop comprehensive rules to protect bank customers.

"Customers need the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to set clear standards that bring safety and consistency to this market and help consumers to make informed choices," said Susan Weinstock, director of Pew's Consumer Banking Project.

Checks and Balances: 2015 Update marks the third year Pew has reviewed the policies and practices of 45 of the 50 largest banks in the U.S. The report also looked for trends at 32 institutions that were covered in both previous reports.

"Three years of comparative analysis have shown that voluntary reforms on the part of financial institutions, while helpful, are not enough to fully protect consumers wherever they choose to bank," Weinstock said.

NBC News provided Nessa Feddis, senior vice president at the American Bankers Association (ABA), with a copy of the report and she pointed out that Pew had some positive things to say about the industry this time.

"As banks are clearly responding to their customers and voluntarily providing clear and understandable disclosures, government intervention is unnecessary," Feddis said.

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Debit card overdraft fees

Customers resent overdraft fees, but financial institutions make a lot of money from them: $31.8 billion last year, according to Moebs Services. Most large banks charge between $35 and $38 per overdraft, Pew found.

As it has done in past reports, Pew focused on overdraft fees connected to the use of debit cards. Federal rules require bank customers to agree in writing to overdraft coverage for debit card transactions at ATMS or at point-of-sale.

That means debit cards do not come with overdraft protection. Do nothing (that is, don't sign up for this coverage) and cash withdrawals at an ATM and debit card purchases at the store will be declined when you don't have enough money in your checking account. But there is no fee.

Sign up for this "service" and you will be allowed to overdraw your account in these situations - and get hit with a steep fee - typically $35 or so - every time you do.

See why this is so confusing?

This year, most (84 percent) of the 32 banks Pew studied over the full three years made the default option clear, while fewer than half (47 percent) did so in 2013. In addition, all 45 banks clearly disclosed the fee for incurring an overdraft penalty.

And yet, most customers who have overdrawn their checking accounts with debit cards do not recall agreeing to this service, the study found.

A few big banks (Ally, Charles Schwab Bank, HSBC, USAA, Citibank and First Republic) decline all debit card transactions at the point-of-sale or ATM that would overdraw an account. Pew believes customer confusion would be eliminated if every bank did this.

Extended overdraft fees are another sore spot. Most banks (58 percent) still charge an additional fee if a customer does not repay an overdraft within a certain amount of time.

On a positive note: Many banks (69 percent) do not charge a fee for very small overdrafts, and nearly all (91 percent) limit the number of overdraft fees a customer can be charged in one day.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.