Watch Out For These 5 Overdraft Traps

Banks need your money. They’re not doing too well on their own, and you’re not screwing up enough to generate the fees they need to make their shareholders happy. That’s why they’ve set up sneaky ways to maximize your every mistake—or in some cases, ways to change the rules so that you make new mistakes where you didn’t before—in order to penalize you. Here are five things SmartMoney says to watch out for.

1. Authorizing transactions via debit card even if it triggers an overdraft fee
“Debit card use triggers 46% of all overdrafts, according to the Center for Responsible Lending,” writes SmartMoney. Keep an eye on your spending and never trust the bank to let you know if you’ve spent more than you have. As a “courtesy,” they’ll approve your transaction, then apply a fee.

SmartMoney suggests you ask your bank to set your debit overdraw amount to zero, so that any transaction that would be rejected in the real world will also be rejected by your bank.

2. Reordering transactions to maximize the number of them that can be considered overdrafts
“Banks justify the practice as a way to ensure the most important debits get processed first (say, so a mortgage payment doesn’t bounce).” This is utter bullshit. Banks do this for one reason—to generate more revenue in overdraft fees from customers who screw up. Here’s an example:

Say you start the day with $100 in your account. You buy a latte ($5), fill up on gas ($50), buy groceries ($35), swing by the drugstore ($8) and then the dry cleaner’s ($25). Processed chronologically, only the last transaction triggers an overdraft. Reordered from high to low, however, three purchases do.

SmartMoney suggests two things to protect against this:

  • Keep an extra $100 or so as “buffer money” in your account, and never plan on using it.
  • Always make sure any deposits have shown up as available funds before you rely on them.

3. Extended overdraft fees
If you take too long to pay an overdraft fee, your bank may attach a second penalty fee. One suggestion is to attach a line of credit or savings account to automatically pay overdaft fees—but don’t use the line of credit for anything other than overdraft protection.

4. High daily maximums
Many banks will allow you to generate multiple overdraft transactions in a single day—Chase, for exammple, sets no limit on the number of times they can charge you, and they increase the charges after the first transaction. SmartMoney suggests you negotiate these fees away by pointing out that the trouble stemmed from a single incident, and that the entire unpleasant affair is a rare occurrence for you. (It is rare, isn’t it? Otherwise you’re just giving money away to the bank.)

5. Taking a day or more to release funds on hold
This last one is triggered by merchants—hotels, gas stations—who place holds on your account before you complete the transaction. Banks, however, apparently have no technology available to release those holds in a timely manner, despite the fact that they’re initially placed in mere seconds. If you conduct any business that generates holds on your funds, assume that money is spent until you can confirm it’s been released again.

SmartMoney suggests you use a credit card to pay for things that trigger holds—”While it still counts against your available credit, it’s more likely that account can withstand a tighter balance for the 24 hours or so it takes for the hold to clear.”

Notice a trend here? Most of the suggestions SmartMoney makes to protect yourself amount to little more than socking more money away at the offending bank, or setting up more potential ways for something bad to happen in the form of unexpected fees. If your bank is practicing more than one or two of these bad habits, your best bet is to start looking for another bank or credit union, one that doesn’t view you as its own personal ATM machine.

“5 Sneaky Overdraft Traps” [SmartMoney]
(Photo: Getty)