Lack of ATM fee awareness

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How much do Americans spend on ATM fees each year?

If you don’t know the answer, don’t worry. The vast majority of Americans don’t know, either, according to a new survey conducted by Ally Bank. In results released on Thursday, only 9 percent of more than 1,000 respondents answered correctly: $7 billion in 2010.

More than half of respondents either didn’t know or guessed well below this massive figure, showing that many of us fail to fully understand how profitable ATM fees can be for banks. Millions of customers help to push that sum higher each time they choose to accept out-of-network charges. The Bankrate 2011 Checking Survey pinned the average cost for using an out-of-network ATM at $3.81, a figure that includes the charges from your bank and the outside institution.

The survey also shows 77 percent of respondents do not think it’s OK to charge an ATM fee. While I’m no fan of fees, I do understand why banks charge account holders for using ATMs owned by other institutions. As a customer, you signed up to use their checking account, branches, ATMs and customer service departments — not the bank with an ATM that just happens to be around the corner when you need some cash.

Outside of whether account holders agree with ATM fees, there are plenty of ways to avoid them. From selecting cash back at the grocery store to simply planning ahead to take out enough cash at your bank’s machine, behavioral changes can help to easily avoid paying that $2 or $3 fee. Some banks are even introducing new technology to help account holders locate nearby ATMs and retail branches with mobile apps.

The average cost of an ATM surcharge fee has been steadily rising every year since 2004. That $7 billion figure is poised to rise unless account holders make the effort to prevent paying them.

What do you think of the results? Do you help contribute to the staggering figure of ATM fees in 2010, or do you decline out-of-network charges?