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Find a free ATM near you and
send those surcharging banks a message

Finding free ATMs
That other bank's ATM that you pass every day on the way to work is going to zap you with a $1.50 surcharge if you dare use it to grab some fast cash.

So, what do you do? How about striding right by that lousy, surcharging ATM and hopping over to a free ATM. That's right -- free.

ATMs that don't charge you a cent to get to your own money do exist. It just takes some work to find them.

More than 78 percent of banks charge noncustomers a fee for using their ATMs, according to Bankrate.com's semiannual checking account survey. That means 22 percent of bank ATMs out there are free.

You can send a message to surcharging banks everywhere by saying "no" to all those pricey ATMs and tracking down a free ATM near you. Use it on a regular basis. By doing so you'll be saying "take that" to fee-happy banks and save a few bucks a month in the process.

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"The most important thing for consumers to do is to get information on the issue and let banks know that they don't like it," says David Sorkin, a professor at John Marshall Law School who runs the Web site ATM $urcharges.

Try the local credit union
You may be able to track down a surcharge-free ATM by simply taking a drive around town. Do you swing by a credit union? Many of them boast surcharge-free ATMs. Lots of smaller banks don't collect surcharges either. Those that don't often will have a big sign saying so near the ATM. Many ATM networks require banks to post notices on ATMs that surcharge. So open your eyes before you insert that card.

Free ATMs also can be tracked down using the Internet. The Credit Union National Association, the Independent Community Bankers Association and The Co-Op Network all have ATM locators on their Web sites. Free ATM locations can also be found on ATM $urcharges, which includes a detailed listing of free ATMs in the city of Chicago.

One of the best sites for finding free ATMs is the aptly named freeatms.com from CompuBank, an online bank with no ATMs of its own.

"We're trying to create as much choice as possible and help the consumer become educated because banks are terrible about charging fees," says Jonathon Lack, executive vice president of marketing and planning for CompuBank.

Find one across the country
The freeatms.com site allows you to search the directories of 10 surcharge-free alliances and networks from around the country. So you can track down a free ATM in your neighborhood or one clear across the country.

"This is perfect for when you're traveling and you're in a new city and you don't want to pay the $2 fee at the ATM in the hotel lobby," Lack says.

Look at San Francisco, where Bank of America and Wells Fargo are threatening to block noncustomers from using their ATMs after city residents voted to ban ATM surcharges.

There are more than 40 ATMs in the city of San Francisco that will let you access your cash for free, according to freeatms.com.

Of course the easiest way to get your money for free is to use your own bank's ATMs. Most banks do not charge their own customers a fee for using their ATMs.

Some small banks and credit unions have increased the number of free ATMs available to their customers by joining selective-surcharge alliances. Alliance members agree not to surcharge each other's customers.

Free ATMs on the rise
As of August more than 2,200 financial institutions were members of these kinds of alliances, almost double the number in November 1998, according to Bank Network News.

The nice thing about selective surcharge alliances is that they give small bank customers and credit union members access to a larger, free ATM network. Of course if your bank or credit union is not an alliance member, you may be charged a surcharge at alliance ATMs. Some alliance members surcharge non-alliance ATM customers and some don't.

For example, credit unions in the CO-OP Network, which stretches across more than a dozen western states, established selective surcharging in November 1998. Yet 132 of the network's 501 credit unions continue to be members of the No-Surcharge ATM Alliance.

"Some credit unions just have a no-surcharge philosophy," says Irene Whitcomb, vice president of membership and marketing for the CO-OP Network.

To add to the confusion, some CO-OP credit unions only surcharge at some of their ATM machines. So again, it pays to keep your eyes peeled when you choose an ATM machine.

The other fee to keep in mind in this whole ATM uproar is something called an "off-us" or "foreign" fee. This is a fee that your own bank charges you when you take out money from another bank's ATM. It's this one-two punch of a surcharge and an off-us fee that has so many folks upset. Paying $3 in fees, $1.50 to your own bank and $1.50 to the bank that owns the ATM, to get $20 in cash seems kind of steep.

Part of the off-us fee goes to reimburse the ATM owner, which means that bank is getting paid twice -- both times by the consumer.

"They're anti-American," says Jon Golinger, consumer program director at the California Public Interest Research Group, of ATM fees.

"They're forcing people to pay not once but twice for getting a single service and that single service is getting access to your own money."

For people who belong to a bank that charges an off-us fee, a free ATM means using their own bank's ATM and only their own bank's ATM.

Ask for cash back
Another way to avoid both surcharges and off-us fees is to ask for cash back when you use your ATM card at a grocery store. This service is free at many stores.

People who want to see ATM surcharges eliminated altogether should take a stand, says Sorkin.

Few banks are worried about losing customers over surcharges now. In fact, it's just the opposite. Banks that surcharge figure people will get sick of paying the fees and decide to become bank customers so they can use the ATMs for free.

"Right now banks think imposing surcharges gets them more customers," Sorkin says.

All this fury over ATM surcharges has not been lost on the folks in Washington. Rep. Bernard Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) has introduced a bill aimed at ending ATM surcharges. The ATM Fees Act of 1999 would place a federal ban on "double charges" at ATMs.

Sanders also plans to introduce a bill that would affirm the authority of city and state governments to ban ATM surcharges.

"At a time of record-breaking bank profits, it is time for the Congress to finally put an end to these outrageous fees," Sanders says in a Nov. 3 press release. "And if Congress won't stand up to the Big Money interests, they should get out of the way and let the states and municipalities do the job."

-- Posted: Nov. 23, 1999


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