updated 12/15/2010 4:40:54 PM ET 2010-12-15T21:40:54

Chase customers who don't earn a lot or rely on paltry government benefits may soon have to pay a monthly fee on their checking accounts.

The bank started notifying customers this month that direct deposits will have to be at least $500 to qualify for a waiver on the $6 monthly fee.

The change, which goes into effect starting Feb. 8, applies to basic checking accounts.

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Chase said the $500 monthly requirement is for a single direct deposit; multiple direct deposits that add up to $500 will not qualify for the waiver. The monthly fee can also be avoided if customers make five or more debit card purchases in a statement period.

Chase, part of New York-based JPMorgan & Chase Co., declined to say how many customers would be affected by the new requirement. But direct deposits are generally made for paychecks, pension payments or government benefits such as unemployment or Social Security.

According to the Social Security Administration, about 7 percent of beneficiaries receive a monthly check of less than $500. Unemployment checks are often less than $500 as well.

The change by Chase comes as the banking industry increasingly focuses on wooing prime customers who maintain higher balances and spend more. The shift in the past year is motivated by a spate of regulatory changes that limit how much banks can earn through penalty fees and other billing practices that disproportionately affected customers with less than stellar financial histories.

To start, banks are now prohibited from automatically enrolling customers in overdraft programs, which often charge customers $35 or more per violation. A sweeping new law this year also limits the penalty fees banks can charge on credit cards, as well as when they can hike interest rates.

And on Thursday, the Federal Reserve is set to announce new caps on the interchange fees banks can collect from merchants when customers make debit card purchases. The cap is expected to slash billions of dollars from the industry's revenue stream.

"You've upset the apple cart in terms of revenue streams," said Peter Garuccio, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association.

The result is that banks are looking for alternative ways to squeeze money from checking accounts. That has meant the introduction of new fees for inactive or low-balance accounts that aren't profitable for banks.

At Bank of America, for example, those who sign up for an eBanking account must now opt for electronic statements and use only online banking to avoid a $9 monthly fee.

Last month, Citi changed the terms on its checking accounts as well. The bank's basic checking account now has an $8 monthly fee, instead of the previous $3 to $10 monthly fee depending on the state. As with Chase, however, there are ways to avoid the fees, such as by making a set number of transactions each month.

Bank of America and Citi do not have minimum requirements for direct deposits that count toward the waiver of a monthly fee.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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