By PALLAVI GOGOI, AP Business Writer
Want to close your bank account? It could cost you as much as $55.
In a survey of the practices of the 10 largest banks in the country -- including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo -- policy and advocacy group Consumers Union found that people who want to close their accounts at big banks and switch to a smaller bank can face costly obstacles.
"Banks have added all sorts of fees on basic checking accounts, which has raised alarm bells," said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union. "But when you hit breaking point and want to move your money, guess what you encounter: more fees."
Consumers Union said none of the 10 banks will make a free same-day electronic transfer, and all charge for wire transfers or certified checks. Certified checks can cost up to $10 and wire transfers $30.
BB&T and Citibank charge a $25 fee if the account is closed within 90 days, while US Bank, HSBC, and PNC Bank charge customers a $25 fee to close an account that has been open for fewer than 180 days.
The survey was commissioned after the public furor over Bank of America's plan to start charging its customers $5 for using debit cards. Bank of America backed off after many organizations, including Consumers Union and Occupy Wall Street protesters, called on Americans to transfer accounts from large banks into smaller community banks or credit unions.
A survey of customers at the top 10 banks by consulting firm cg42 in November found that one in five customers actively considered switching accounts. Consumers Union said it soon started hearing from its members that wasn't easy: Not only did it cost money, but it also cost a lot of time.
Opening an account at another bank can take a few days or up to two weeks for all the paperwork to be completed. Re-routing automatic payments and direct deposits into a new account can take four to six weeks and can be a very intimidating and complicated process for some consumers, the group said.
“When you want to move your money, guess what you encounter: more fees.”Suzanne Martindale, Consumers Union
Banks sometimes reopen old accounts after they have been closed by customers.
Chase reopens an account if the bank receives a deposit. Consumers Union said that could easily happen if a direct deposit isn't re-routed in a timely manner. Bank of America's policy is to reopen accounts if any activity hits the account.
Chicago business owner Mark Henderson said he closed his account about 18 months ago, and kept receiving statements with a service charge every month saying there wasn't enough money in the account.
After calling several times and telling the bank's customer service representative that the account was closed, Henderson said, he gave up.
"Now I just tear the statement when it comes," says Henderson. Bank of America did not respond to a request for comment.
Consumers Union warns that customers can end up owing hundreds of dollars in penalty fees or even a monthly maintenance fee if a re-opened account falls below what is needed to avoid such a fee.
Consumers are at risk of more penalty fees after they switch banks. If merchants and other billers charge for late payments for delays while re-routing automatic payments, the previous bank may charge an overdraft fee on an empty account or for a bounced check.
The 10 banks surveyed are Bank of America, BB&T, Chase, Citibank, HSBC, PNC, SunTrust, TD Bank, US Bank and Wells Fargo.
As part of the study, the group sent 16 secret shoppers into branches around the country to ask how to close an account and reviewed online fee schedules and account disclosures, tracked news developments, and collected consumer stories.