Last fall, 16 secret shoppers visiting branches at some of the nation’s biggest banks found out just how hard it was to close an account.
That’s according to a new report from Consumers Union that examined the account policies and practices for the 10 largest retail banks: Bank of America, BB&T, Chase, Citibank, HSBC, PNC, SunTrust, TD Bank, US Bank and Wells Fargo.
Consumers Union found that some banks were engaging in a practice involving so-called “zombie accounts.” This is when some financial institutions reopen a closed account. Chase and Bank of America said they reserve the right to do this if a deposit, credit or debit hits the account, the group discovered. An unaware customer could potentially be hit with a number of fees, including overdraft and monthly maintenance on an account that was previously closed.
“Right now. it’s up to consumers to ensure a smooth transfer to a new financial institution, even though banks control the means to make it happen,” said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union. “We need to make it easier for consumers to move their money. so they have a real choice when it comes to where to bank.”
Consumers Union said only one of the 16 secret shoppers was warned that his account could be reopened. A Chase’s spokesperson denied that the bank involuntarily reopens accounts. Bank of America’s policy is to reopen a closed account if any activity–credit or debit–hits the account, the advocacy group said.
A secret shopper in Orange Park, Fla., said even after the account had been closed, Bank of America kept re-opening the account to process charges that should have been returned "account closed" and charged overdraft fees.
“I had already notified my auto-pay creditors that I had closed the BofA account, but not in time for them to update their computers of the change. It took over three months and a threat to hire an attorney for damages plus file a formal complaint with regulators to get Bank of America to permanently close the account,” the Florida shopper told Consumers Union.
The secret shoppers did not visit credit unions. However, switch kits at cooperatives became very popular in the month leading up to Bank Transfer Day last November. CUNA said 214,000 new members joined credit unions in October 2011. During the third quarter of last year, the industry added 450,000 new members, according to the NCUA. Both CUNA and NAFCU have touted the efficiency and ease of credit union switch kits.
A J.D. Power & Associates study that polled 5,000 customers who shopped for a new financial institution or new account during the past 12 months found that 66% would do so if the process was quicker. Credit unions and small banks beat out larger banks, according to the data.
Meanwhile, Consumers Union said three of the banks surveyed (HSBC, PNC and US Bank) charge a $25 fee to close an account that has been open for fewer than 180 days. Two more banks (BB&T and Citi) charge a $25 fee if the account is closed within 90 days.
All of the banks surveyed charged for wire transfers or certified checks with fees ranging from $7 to $10 for a certified check and from $24 to $30 for a wire transfer.
Consumers Union also found that the account disclosures and websites for all of the banks surveyed failed to provide consumers with clear account closing policies. In the fall of 2011, the consumer advocacy group said it sent 16 secret shoppers to the banks’ branches to ask how to close an account. Some shoppers received conflicting information on how to do so.
To give consumers clearer avenues to close an account, Consumers Union said it is calling on Congress and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consider several policy changes.
Among them, banks should be required to bear the responsibility for transferring a customer’s automatic payments and deposits from the old account to the new account within 14 days. They should also provide same-day electronic fund transfers at no cost to consumers.