On Jan. 22, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bank of America closed the remaining accounts that utilized its eBanking service, which did not charge a fee for a checking account. Bank of America customers who had been using the eBanking program were switched to a standard checking account, which charges a monthly $12 fee to customers who don’t maintain a daily balance of at least $1,500 or have at least one direct deposit of $250 or more each month. Many Twitter users were critical of the change, saying it will disproportionately impact low income customers, as $12 a month is a larger percent of their total income than that of middle or high income customers.
Bank of America representative Betty Riess tells Bustle that the bank eliminated its teller-free eBanking service to provide customers with “full-service access to all our channels, including the guidance and advice provided by our experts in financial centers, regardless of product.” Riess also said that Bank of America also offers a SafeBalance account option that doesn’t allow overdrafts for $4.95 per month.
Many people argue that this fee structure — where customers can have their fee waived by maintaining a certain balance — is inaccessible for low income customers. “Poor people who are denied access to traditional bank services are left vulnerable to costly check-cashing outlets, pawnshops, and other predatory services," Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, tells Bustle. "Bank of America’s action will result in the expansion of unbanked and underbanked communities across our country.”
Clarke continues, “By pushing poor people into the dark world of alternative financial services characterized by higher fees and exorbitant interest rates, we thrust vulnerable consumers into further economic distress. This action also has a disparate impact on poor African-American and Hispanic consumers who are disproportionately represented among those who are unbanked and underbanked across the country.”
Heather Geronimo, a former Bank of America customer, tells Bustle she and her husband decided to close their account as a result of the reports. “We found it appalling that they would get rid of the free checking," she says. "Four years ago my husband and I were both unemployed with two children and had a checking account at Bank of America, and for months we only had $40 in that account, and that was an emergency fund. If they were charging that fee at that point we would have been unable to pay the copay for my daughters emergency room visit that landed her in the hospital for two weeks.” Geronimo and her husband now do meet the minimum requirements to avoid the additional charges, but said they closed their account on principle.
Currently, a Change.org petition is circulating in response to Bank of America’s fees. The petition, which has nearly 50,000 signatures, reads in part:
“The future is uncertain for many Bank of America customers because of the changes Bank of America plans to make to their accounts. We live in a virtual world where virtual transactions are the main and sometimes only way of paying bills or purchasing goods and services. I urge you to let Bank of America realize that this is unfair to their customers that have been loyal to them for years. Tell Bank of America to not end their fee free checking accounts.”
One petition supporter commented and said “I'm signing because these requirements place an unnecessary burden on low income members of society.” Another wrote, “As a grad student with little income [...] the $12 fee does make a huge difference. There’s no way for me to have a $250 direct deposit every month let alone keep $1500 in there at all times.” Another said, "I have been a customer of yours for decades and while I won't be affected by your new greedy fees, many in this country make barely less than $8 per hour and still need somewhere to keep their meager wages. Be kind. Do the right thing."
In 2015, The Economist noted that “life is expensive for America’s poor, with financial services the primary culprit.” Of the 8 percent of American households that do not have a bank account, half of them express the fear of minimum balance requirements and costly overdraft fees as the reason, according to The Economist. While using alternative financial institutions to avoid overdraft fees makes sense for low income people in the short term, a 2008 Brookings Institution report found that using check-cashing services could potentially cost a full-time worker $40,000 over the course of their career.
This isn’t the first time Bank of America has received backlash from customers. In 2011, it proposed a $5 fee on accounts that used debit cards to make purchases, but reversed course after much public criticism. For now, the most recent changes are still in effect.