8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
The stupidest fees of 2011
When it comes to outrageous fees imposed on consumers, these are some of the worst -- whether it's a charge for ending pay-TV service or a fee to deposit a lot of cash.
A lot of companies tried to hit you with stupid fees in 2011.
There were baggage fees for travelers, resort fees for people who stayed in hotels, fees to pay a bill -- online or offline -- and even a fee for printing out your concert tickets at home.
So a fee really had to rise above the ordinary to win the mantle of stupidest. And the following surely did.
Not all of these fees were new in 2011. In fact, some have been around for a while. But they've all drifted to the top of my list of stupid fees for being even more ill-considered, counterproductive, anti-competitive or unfair than the rest of the fees we've come to know and hate.
Debit card fees
The most infamous fees of 2011 were some that had targeted millions -- but that few people actually ended up paying.
After Congress limited how much banks could charge merchants in transaction, or "swipe," fees to accept plastic, several banks announced plans to begin charging their customers monthly fees to use their debit cards. The banks said they were forced to do so to make up the revenue lost to the new caps. (Banks had been charging an average of 44 cents per transaction, although a Federal Reserve survey suggested their actual cost averaged 13 cents. The fees are now capped at 21 cents.)
The backlash to the proposed debit card fees was immediate and fierce. Politicians and pundits criticized the banks for being tone-deaf. A $4 or $5 monthly fee might not seem like much to a well-paid bank executive, but it was significant to a customer base struggling with high unemployment, a bad economy and a lingering resentment over multibillion-dollar bank bailouts.
The banks caved. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo pulled the plug on the pilot programs they had planned to test in a few states. Two other banks that had started charging the fees, SunTrust and Regions Bank, canceled their programs as well.
The last to give in was Bank of America, which announced on Nov. 1 that it wouldn't begin imposing the fees in January, as it had planned.
Boarding pass fees
Spirit Airlines bills itself as a low-cost carrier, but it's found even more ways than most other airlines to boost its revenue through add-on fees. It was the first (and so far only) carrier to charge for carry-on baggage, in addition to charging a higher-than-average fee to check bags. Just booking a ticket incurs a $10 "reservations booking fee" and a $16.99 "passenger usage fee."
The airline recently slipped in a new charge: $5 for having your boarding pass printed out at the counter, rather than getting it from a kiosk or printing it at home.
Airlines have made a science out of charging for what used to be provided free with the cost of the ticket. The proliferation of airline fees has made it tough for consumers to get true apples-to-apples comparisons of flight prices. The better travel search engines add in any required fees and taxes, but they typically don't allow you to price out your luggage costs or factor in other fees that vary from carrier to carrier, such as charges to reserve a seat in advance. Too often, you don't know what you're really going to pay until you're at the airport.
Still, some airlines do seem to be trying harder than others to come up with new ways to gouge their customers. If you want a better (and ultimately cheaper) travel experience, you might want to go with an airline that isn't so interested in "gotcha" fees. Southwest Airlines comes to mind.
Early-termination fees for TV service
Pay-television providers are adopting a page from the cellphone carriers' playbook: walloping departing customers with fat early-termination fees.
Bailing on Verizon's Fios service before two years are up will cost you $230 to start, with a $10 monthly prorated reduction. The two major satellite providers, Dish and DirecTV, charge $17.50 and $20 a month, respectively, for each month of the two-year contract that remains -- which could leave you owing well more than $400.
The pay-TV providers say they need to make up for the high cost of the fancy equipment they're installing in your home, because charging you $75 a month or more just isn't enough. But some customers complain that they weren't told of the fees and that they didn't realize they were signing up for a two-year contract when they installed the service or got an upgrade. Some say they were charged even after it turned out the provider couldn't deliver service.
DirecTV, in particular, has run into trouble with regulators over its practices. Late last year, DirecTV reached a settlement with all 50 states and the District of Columbia on a variety of matters, including its cancellation penalties. Consumer advocate Mitch Lipka, who has called DirecTV "one of the most complained-about companies in America," says the settlement came almost exactly five years after the company reached a 22-state settlement over similar accusations.
Given the amounts of money involved, pay-TV providers need to do a better job of disclosing the fees and making sure people know what they're getting into. A bunch of teeny-tiny type buried on a website or at the bottom of a work order just doesn't cut it.
Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus recently called attention to one bank fee I'd never heard of in more than two decades of writing about banks: the cash-deposit fee.
It seems that many banks charge their business customers a fee if they try to deposit a lot of cash at once.
Lazarus reported that Bank of America charges some of its business accounts 20 cents for every $100 in cash deposited after an initial $10,000, Chase charges 40 cents for every $1,000 in cash deposited over $7,500, and Citibank charges 10 cents for every $100 in cash deposited after an initial amount ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of account.
Lazarus tries to make the point that these fees "can be a cold slap in the face at a time when every cent counts."
Mmm, maybe. But really, these fees are pretty small, and that's kind of the point. Here it really is the principle that counts.
"Call me old-fashioned, but handling customers' cash is a service that banks have provided without complaint for centuries. They're banks, for goodness sakes," Lazarus writes. "The 'management costs' of such activities are belied by the modest fees involved. Chase needs to charge an extra 40 cents for every $1,000 deposited beyond a certain level? How could that possibly make a difference?"
Call it a "we charge it because we can" fee. Or call it what I do: stupid.
Fees for the unemployed
Forty states have largely phased out paper unemployment checks in favor of loading benefits onto prepaid cards -- a form of payment notorious for egregious fees.
Banks issuing the cards often lard them with junk fees, according to a study earlier this year by the National Consumer Law Center. People using the cards are being charged for checking their balances, for using ATMs in their banks' own networks and even for making purchases.
The study singled out as the best cards the Bank of America versions offered in New Jersey and California. These cards don't charge for in-network ATM withdrawals and allow two free out-of-network withdrawals and free cash back from purchases. Balance inquiries are free, as is customer service.
The card with the most junk fees was the JPMorgan Chase card in Tennessee. While other cards offered at least one free in-network withdrawal per deposit, the Tennessee card charges $1 for the first two withdrawals and 60 cents thereafter, plus $3.50 for out-of-network withdrawals. It also is one of the five state cards that charges for declined transactions and one of 10 that charges for balance inquiries.
Some states even charge inactivity fees for balances left on the cards after as little as 90 days. Congress thought inactivity fees were egregious enough on gift cards that they've been banned for the first year, but apparently Alabama, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri and Oregon don't care to provide their unemployed with the same protections offered a gift card buyer.
But Chase also offered one of the better cards, the one in Arizona, which offers plenty of free transactions and access to customer service. The study noted that "card features vary considerably even among those issued by the same bank, so clearly there is room for negotiation and adjustment."
The consumer law center points out that high fees can eat away at the already paltry weekly unemployment check, which averages $294, and recommended that states "eliminate all penalty and information fees and ensure that recipients can easily access each benefit deposit without charge."
C'mon, states. Don't let banks skin people who are out of work, just because you declined to negotiate them a better deal. That's just stupid.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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