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Jewish World Review April 4, 2000 / 28 Adar II, 5760

Bob Greene

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Any good reason this shouldn't be called bank robbery?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BRADENTON, Fla. At some point during this long trip I've been on, I passed a bank that had posted a come-on sign next to the road.

This was clearly designed to draw potential customers. And what was the bank dangling in front of the public? Was it a free toaster if you opened a savings account? Free dinnerware? Tickets to a ballgame, or dinner at a restaurant?

Nah. Those are the kinds of things banks used to offer customers. Those days are long gone.

This sign-- and evidently it was not intended as a joke, apparently passing motorists were supposed to look at the sign, get all bug-eyed at the lavishness of the offer, and screech off the road and into the bank's parking lot-- said:

"Free Teller Visits."

Yep. It has come to this. The idea that if you walk into a bank to give them your money, or to take out some of your money, and the bank won't charge you for dealing with the teller, apparently has become so unusual that banks that allow you to deal with their tellers for free are now using it as a promotional gimmick.

What I'm going to write may come as a shock to some younger Americans-- but for many years in this country, it did not cost you anything to go to a bank. The banks were grateful for your business-- they gave you kitchen appliances to thank you for allowing them to hold on to your money. Because the tellers really didn't provide you with anything when you came in-- they either took your money, or gave you part of your money back from your account; either way, it wasn't their money, it was yours-- of course they would not charge you for the minute or so you spent with them. Charge you? For what?

Then came the modernization of the banking industry. The ATMs went up-- which allowed banks to get rid of many of their tellers. When customers complained that they did not like having to pay an ATM fee, bankers said that the fee was for the convenience of it all.

At the same time, though, some banks began charging their customers a fee for carrying out a teller-assisted transaction. So if, in an effort to avoid paying an ATM fee, you rode the bus to your bank, stood in line, and then did your banking with a human teller, you might find out that you were being charged for this, too.

We did a little survey last week of banks in 20 states. Some allow their customers to deal with tellers for free, many others do not, some limit transactions with a teller to six or eight a month before a fee kicks in. Different kinds of accounts carry different restrictions.

The most astonishing thing is that the pay-to-bank-with-a-teller fees apply not just to withdrawals, but to deposits. So if, at one of these banks, you take your money in to give to the teller, that teller will remove your money from your hands-- and then charge you for it.

A spokeswoman at the American Bankers Assn. in Washington said there are no overall regulations about whether banks can charge for teller visits. "The industry has moved from your parents' bank, which was basic checking and savings," she said.

Apparently so-- with sometimes stupid results. In Chicago last week, Bank One Corp. announced that it will eliminate 5,100 jobs-- 6 percent of its workforce. At the same time it announced that it has paid its former chairman, who left in the midst of turmoil, a parting fee of $10.3 million in cash. It also announced that it will pay him a pension of $3 million a year.

Bank One Corp. is one of the banking companies that charges its customers teller fees on some kinds of accounts. So they're getting rid of 5,100 people, they're paying their departed chairman $10.3 million in cash and $3 million a year on top of that-- and they're asking some of their customers to pay them a fee for going to a teller window. This really sounds like the sort of outfit to whom you want to hand over your money for safekeeping.

In this atmosphere, it shouldn't be surprising that some banks are putting up "Free Teller Visits" signs, as if customers should swoon in gratitude at such a concept. Banking officials say this issue is really quite complex.

It doesn't need to be. There's a clear and simple way to look at it:

Any bank that charges any of its customers a penny to deal with a teller doesn't deserve to have any customers.

(And any bank that extends that policy to deposits should be arrested for theft. Even robbers on the street, when they take your money, don't charge you an extra fee after you've given them your wallet.)



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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