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Big banks charge higher fees

Fed survey also finds fewer banks offering free checking services

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WASHINGTON — America's largest banks charge significantly more for services than smaller banks that do business in only one state, the Federal Reserve has found in an annual survey of bank fees.

The Fed report, released Wednesday, also found that the number of banks offering free checking account services dropped to 10.8 percent in 1999, compared with 17.3 percent in 1998.

The number of savings and loans with free checking account services rose to 30 percent last year, compared with 23.4 percent in 1998.

On the difference in fees between big banks that operate in a number of states and small banks, the Fed said, "Most of the fees charged by multistate banks were on average significantly higher than those charged by single-state banks."

The Fed report found the average bounced check fee at a single-state bank was $17.04 last year, compared with $21.80 charged by big banks.

Small banks charged on average $14.50 for a stop-payment order, compared with $20.10 for big banks, the central bank found.

The survey, based on inquiries of 1,000 financial institutions, also showed that more banks offer minimum-balance accounts, in which customers pay flat monthly fees as long as their balances remain above a certain amount.

It found 40.6 percent of banks offering such accounts, compared with 35.6 percent in 1998. The average monthly charge dropped last year by 28 cents to $6.15, compared with $6.43 in 1998.

The latest report will be the Fed's final survey on bank fees unless Congress reauthorizes the annual review.

Consumer advocates said the disparity illustrates a need for legislative oversight.

"The report continues to show that bigger banks continue to charge bigger fees," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Mierzwinski said his group, which also has studied bank charges, has found that more banks charge customers for services that once were free, such as assessments for transactions involving tellers or the return of canceled checks.

"Regular checking account service fees are not going up that much, but banks are adding new fees. You are getting less but paying more," Mierzwinski said.

Banking industry officials defended the more prevalent fees as a way to hold down basic charges.

John Hall, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, said a survey the ABA did last month showed that 59 percent of bank customers pay $3 or less for monthly bank services.

"Bank fee structures have really gone from a one-size-fits-all approach to a pay-as-you-go approach," Hall said. "You only pay for the services you use, rather than having one fee structure subsidize everyone."