Reforms Needed To Keep Consumers From Being Trapped In Their Old Bank Accounts

It’s been nearly a year since the first Bank Transfer Day, when people around the country ditched fee-laden accounts in favor of more consumer-friendly institutions, and yet many bank customers still find roadblocks that keep them from easily jumping ship from one bank to another.

“Consumer frustration has only grown over the past year as bank fees have continued to rise,” said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumer Union. “But many frustrated consumers end up staying with their bank because switching to a new financial institution can turn into a big hassle. It’s time to make it easier for consumers to move their money so they have a real choice when it comes to where to bank.”

According to Bankrate, between 2009 and 2012, the number of banks offering checking accounts without monthly fees or required minimum balances dropped from 76% to only 39%. And in just one year, the average minimum balance required to avoid a monthly fee shot up 23% to $723.02.

A July poll conducted by our cohorts at Consumer Reports found that around one in five consumers had considered switching to a new financial institution in the previous 12 months, but opted not to because of hassles like transferring automatic payments.

And when Consumers Union looked for guidance from the ten largest banks on how to close out customers’ accounts, it found that not one of them offered clear instructions for doing so on their websites or in written account disclosures.

“Obstacles to switching banks can trip up even the most determined consumer,” said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union. “All of these hurdles create customer inertia and stifle the kind of competition we need to help make banks more responsive to consumers.”

Thus, Consumers Union has called on Congress and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consider a number of policy changes to enhance consumer choice and bank competition:

• Banks should be required to bear the responsibility for transferring a customer’s automatic payments and deposits from the old account to the new account within 14 days
• Banks should provide same-day electronic fund transfers at no cost to consumers
• Check hold times should be reduced so consumers can quickly access deposits in new accounts
• Banks should be prohibited from assessing unfair fees for closing accounts
• Banks should be prohibited from reopening accounts after consumers close them
• Banks should be required to provide clear and accessible account closing procedures
• Bank regulators should examine the feasibility of portable bank account numbers to facilitate easier bank switching.

Over at DefendYourDollars.org, Consumers Union has a checklist you can use to help guide you through the process of safely moving your accounts from one bank to another.