Lawmakers put banks on notice: Stop charging overdraft fees during the coronavirus pandemic

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past a Citibank branch in New York on Friday, April 10, 2020.

With roughly 22 million Americans now out of work due to the coronavirus, having enough money to cover bills and buy essentials is a real concern for many. Those attempting to stretch their budgets this month may wind up overdrawing their account and paying hefty fees. 

Former presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) want to help Americans avoid these unnecessary fees. Although federal regulators have encouraged banks to waive overdraft fees during the current health crisis, the two senators sent letters to 15 banks on Friday, urging them to stop charging overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees while the coronavirus pandemic has so much of the country shut down and millions of Americans are out of work.

Banks typically charge overdraft fees when you overdraw your checking account. Instead of having your debit card declined or the purchase canceled, your bank will cover the difference and charge you an overdraft fee, usually about $30 to $35. The similar "non-sufficient fund fee," is usually levied when a check bounces in any transaction, including with any recurring bills customers may have.

"We must give workers and hardworking Americans the tools they need to rebuild and recover after this crisis," Brown said in a statement to CNBC Make It. "That includes making sure they can keep their money in their own pockets and out of the hands of banks to cover fees and small overdraft amounts."

Booker and Brown sent letters to Ameris Bank, Bank of America, BankPlus, Citi, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Ocean Bank, PNC Bank, Regions Bank, TD Bank, Truist Bank (BB&T and SunTrust), U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and Woodforest National Bank — all of which are either among the top 10 banks in the U.S. that earn the most from overdraft fees, or a bank with over $2 billion in assets that takes in the most overdraft and non-sufficient-funds revenue per account.

In the letter to Chase, for example, the two Congressmen wrote: 

"...Banks should be ensuring that consumers will not be faced with any overdraft charges that compounds their already fragile financial state, and provide them some relief as they manage ongoing expenses, including rent and mortgage payments, utility bills, and other essentials."

The banks involved have not yet responded to CNBC Make It's requests for comment on Friday. 

The letters to banks come on the heels of a bill Booker and Brown introduced last month that would bar banks, credit unions and other financial institutions from charging overdraft fees until the coronavirus crisis is over. While the two lawmakers pushed for the overdraft protection to be included in the $2 trillion federal relief package that was passed, it remains a standalone bill. 

Why overdraft fees can be a problem

A $30 to $35 overdraft may not seem like a lot, but these fees can compound quickly. Last year, overdraft fees alone brought in $34.6 billion in revenue for financial companies, according to financial research company Moebs Services

Unsurprisingly, these charges are some of the most complained-about bank fees. There were roughly 1,600 customer complaints lodged about overdraft policies tied to checking accounts last year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's database.

An overdraft fee of $35 on a $100 purchase means $135 is removed from your account. That markup is significantly higher than what a typical credit card would charge in interest.

Plus, you may not get notified right away that you've overdrawn your account, and instead, rack up multiple fees per day. On average, big banks tend to cap the number of overdraft fees at four to six per day, but some allow up to 12 per day, according to ValuePenguin's analysis of policies at the 16 largest U.S. consumer banks. If you do have multiple charges that come in on the same day, a 2018 report by the Center for Responsible Lending found that some banks process the most expensive transaction first, causing consumers to incur more overdrafts. 

How to avoid overdraft fees

If you are worried about overdrawing your checking account, you may want to consider changing banks. Some banks offer checking accounts without monthly fees or overdraft fees, including Key Bank's Hassle-Free Account and Discover Bank's checking account

Several other banks, including Ally, Bank of America and Santander Bank, have announced that they will waive overdraft fees during the coronavirus pandemic. But some banks do require that customers call to request this assistance; it's not automatic. 

A spokesperson from Ally told CNBC Make It on Friday that the waiver for overdraft and excessive fee transactions is automatically applied, no need for consumers to request it specifically. Santander did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on its assistance. 

If your bank isn't waiving overdraft fees, you can opt out of the overdraft protection program, and you will not have to pay a fee. Instead, your card will be declined if there's no money in your account. 

You can only opt out of overdrafts on one-time transactions made with your debit card, so if you use checks, or if you have recurring payments set up and you go over your current checking balance, you may still be charged an insufficient funds fee.

That said, it's especially important to double check you have money in your account before you make purchases. And hopefully your bank is willing to work with you. 

"During this crisis, it is critical that our nation's financial institutions do everything possible to ease the burden on their consumers," Booker and Brown wrote in their letters to banks.

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