Fewer than half of Portland-area bank branches fully disclosed their fees to prospective customers, while one in four provided no fee information at all – despite the fact that such disclosures are required by law, according to a survey of more than 350 bank branches released this week by the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group.
The report, Big Banks, Bigger Fees: A National Survey of Bank Fees (http://www.ospirgstudents.org/report/big-banks-bigger-fees, includes consumer tips and a local comparison shopping guide.
"Shopping for banks is harder when they don't obey the law and provide upfront information about the fees they charge," said Jon Bartholomew, OSPIRG's consumer advocate.
OSPIRG also made a series of recommendations to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which takes over most consumer law writing and enforcement on July 21.
The group called on the CFPB to enforce the Truth In Savings Act, and to require banks to post fees on the web in searchable formats and make fee disclosures in a clear, tabular format -- not buried in cumbersome multi-page brochures.
"Banks will continue to ignore the Truth In Savings Act and other consumer laws until the CFPB takes over in July, " he said. "But the banks don't want consumers to have their own tough cop. That's why they've launched a relentless Congressional campaign to weaken the CFPB, deny it a strong director and delay its startup date, because the banks like it better when there are no cops on the beat."
Bartholomew said local community banks and credit unions are more likely than national banks to provide fee schedules.
"For example, while Umpqua Bank and Banner Bank branches provided fee schedules on request as required by law, we found that all three branches of Wells Fargo Bank we visited in Portland failed to provide the information consumers need to shop for a checking account," Bartholomew said.
Surveyors visited 372 bank branches in 20 states to compare fees and determine whether banks were complying with the 1991 Truth In Savings Act, which requires disclosure of all account-related fees to prospective customers.
In 2008, the U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report finding that researchers "could not obtain" complete fee schedules at 22 percent of branches.
Three years later that number is virtually the same, the OSPIRG report found.
Among the findings of Big Banks, Bigger Fees:
-- Only 38 percent of the banks visited provided researchers with fee schedules as required by law on their first request. After two or more requests, eventually a total of 55 percent complied with the law.
-- In a finding nearly identical to the GAO report, nearly one-quarter of branches (24 percent) never complied and refused to provide fee information, claimed that they didn't have it, or told researchers to "go online."
-- Four out of six of the banks surveyed in Portland failed to comply with the law when asked for a bank fee schedule.
A shopping guide included in the report compares banking options, directs consumers to free and low-cost checking choices, and provides a list of fees that consumers should look out for when picking a bank.
The top recommendations for consumers are:
--Bank at a credit union, or choose a local or regional bank, which tend to be more consumer-oriented and have better rates and lower fees than national banks.
--Compare fees and rates of different banks. If they do not provide a schedule of their fees upon request for you to use in your comparison shopping, move on to the next bank.
--Understand how to avoid fees. Depending on the account, you can avoid banking fees by using direct deposit of your paycheck, keeping a minimum balance in the account or banking online.
"Big banks are blaming regulation for doing what they always do, which is raise fees," said Sasha Rosen, OSPIRG's organizing director, who conducted many of the surveys.
"But free checking is still there for consumers who look for it and there are lots of ways to avoid high bank fees."
The full report containing 18 detailed tips for consumers is available at http://www.ospirgstudents.org/report/big-banks-bigger-fees