Bank fees are adding extra pain to some Americans’ pandemic-induced woes. In 2019, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, big banks collected more than $11 billion in overdraft fees from their customers, with 9 percent of customers paying more than 80 percent of the fees. For the first nine months of 2020, customers of big banks paid $6 billion in overdraft fees, according to Rebecca Borné, a researcher at the nonprofit, which advocates better treatment of consumers by financial institutions.
The total amount of penalty fees that bank customers paid in 2020 could end up being lower than last year, but because such a large amount of the penalties are paid by such a small subset of customers, the impact of those fees on their finances will most likely be far worse this year.
Aside from the temporary truces some banks have made with their customers around the stimulus checks, banks have not modified their overdraft policies during the pandemic, Ms. Borné said. “Charging unreasonably high fees, multiple fees per day, extended fees and other practices that manipulate the charges to maximize the fees — those practices hurt those struggling the most,” she said.
On Christmas Eve, Andrew Shorts, an artist living in Ogden, Utah, was scrambling to pay his electricity bill so that he would not lose power and heat. Mr. Shorts, who makes murals and graphic design projects for local businesses, has been locked out of his account at Zions Bank, a Salt Lake City-based lender, since a rapid fire of automatic deductions for household bills this fall pushed his balance $150 into negative territory.
When he called Zions two days before Christmas, a representative told him that he would probably have to pay the bank what he owed it and settle for the remainder. The bank changed its policy after President Trump signed the stimulus bill on Tuesday. A spokesman said Zions would zero out all negative balances of up to $2,000 for 30 days to let customers get their stimulus money.
Mr. Shorts described the $600 stimulus payment as “the equivalent of a pool noodle while my wife, child, myself and my now crippled business are drowning in the open sea.” But he still wants the money. In the meantime, he scraped together just enough to pay his electricity bill.
On the day Congress passed the latest stimulus legislation last week, Misha Roberts, a 26-year-old student at Ohio State University, could not bring herself to sign into her PNC online account and look up the balance. She knew it was somewhere between $1,200 and $1,700 in the negative, thanks to a combination of bills for basic expenses she could not afford, which were automatically deducted from her account, and overdraft fees.