Have you been hit with a fee for triggering the overdraft protection on your checking account, even though you don't think you ever signed up for the program? You're not alone. A new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that overdraft charges continue to cause confusion among account holders. In fact, 52 percent of bank customers who have incurred an overdraft protection fee did not know that they had opted in for the costly coverage.
"Account holders are still befuddled by the rule about opting in for overdraft protection," says Susan Weinstock, director of Pew's Consumer Banking Project.
Interest rates of 5,000 percent
Overdraft protection essentially operates like a short-term loan. If you don't have enough money in your checking account to cover the cost of a purchase, your bank will go ahead and approve the charge. The price of that approval? An insanely high interest rate on the advance the bank gives you to cover the charge. Weinstock says Pew calculated the cost of overdraft fees a few years ago, and, on average, banks charged what amounted to an APR of 5,000 percent.
Plenty of banks have a system in place that can make those costs add up more quickly. It's called high-to-low transaction reordering. A bank might shuffle your purchases to maximize its earnings from your overdrawn account. Weinstock and Pew are urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to require banks to stop the practice, but 25 of the 50 largest banking institutions in the country currently use some type of high-to-low reordering process.
Banks aren't rushing to alert customers when their accounts are overdrawn, either. The study reveals that the most common ways that consumers discover their accounts are overdrawn are when they review their account statement or receive a letter in the mail. Faster methods such as email, text messages and phone calls rank much further behind.
While banks' official overdraft fees typically cost approximately $35, the research shows consumers are paying an average of $69 per overdraft due to reordering and the potential for additional fees. If you've seen these charges on your account statement, it's time to figure out how to protect yourself from overdraft protection. Check out "6 ways to avoid pesky overdraft fees."