Sunday, September 27, 2009

Debit Card Deceits: When Zero Isn't The Floor

Debit cards have become a popular alternative to credit cards because they have many of the conveniences of credit cards without actual debt. I have come to rely more and more on my debit card because I don't have to carry a checkbook and hold up checkout lines with identification hassles every time I write a check. I simply swipe the card and go on my way. Money is deducted directly from my checking account, just as if I wrote a check. Once I deplete my checking account balance, the card stays in my wallet until the next payday. It appears to be a full proof system for staying out of debt.

However, appearances can be deceiving because the belief that you can't get into debt using a debit card is based on a false assumption. Account holders naturally assume that once the balance is zero, transactions will be declined. The reality is banks will process the transaction even if the money is not in the account and then assess hefty overdraft fees. The account holder becomes liable for the purchase, the overdraft fee, and any additional fees that the bank dreams up.

My teenage daughter had a recent run-in with debit card fees. She does not have a credit card, but she has a checking account at M &T Bank with a debit/ATM card, and a job with direct deposit for her paychecks. Like many consumers, she believed that a debit card protected her from ever spending more than the balance in her account. However, a couple of small purchases during a night out with friends unleashed a cascading series of bank charges put the balance on her account hopelessly below zero.

At a local eatery she bought a sandwich for $8 and then moved across the street to the local coffee shop where she made a $4 purchase. She thought her checking account balance was low, but each transaction on her debit card was approved. What she didn't realize is that because she did not have the money to cover either purchase, each transaction triggered a $35 overdraft fee. Checking her account online the next day, revealed that she was now more than $70 below zero. She thought the problem would be solved in a few days when her paycheck for $90 would be posted.

However, that was another false assumption. M&T's fee structure imposed a $10 charge everyday that the account remained below zero. By the time the $90 arrived she was more than $100 in the red and counting. Her paycheck vanished and the $10 daily charges continued. The next $90 paycheck would be in two weeks. It had become mathematically impossible for her get out of debt.

After learning all this, I understand why payday loan operations continue to thrive despite their exorbitant fees. In some circumstances, a payday loan is a much better deal compared to a bank. For low-income people with small balances, a simple math error made while shopping can cause unrecoverable financial harm if a bank is involved.

Because my daughter wanted to be responsible for her own finances, she avoided telling me what was happening. I found out by accident, when coincidentally, another problem occurred with her account that prompted the bank to call, and I answered the phone. Someone had obtained access to her debit card number and was making fraudulent purchases. These transactions, totaling hundreds of dollars for purchases in places outside the United States, had not been declined either. But the bank's monitoring systems had flagged them as suspicious and called to verify their authenticity.

We had to visit the bank and fill out paperwork certifying that the transactions were indeed fraudulent so that the charges could be reversed. By the time we arrived, the fraudulent purchases, multiple overdraft fees, and daily charges had resulted in a checking account balance that was close to $1500 below zero.

I asked the M&T bank manager: "At what point does the balance get so far below zero that transactions are declined?" Interestingly, he did not have an exact answer to that question. He indicated that there are limits, but that the limits are not hard and fast. From his point-of-view, the bank was doing a favor by allowing purchases to go through even if no money was in the account to cover them. Of course, it is an unasked favor, for which the bank is charging fees that are often far greater than the purchase amounts in question.

On reflection, I found the bank's priorities deeply unsettling. After all, M&T had asked us to come in, but it was the suspicious pattern of activity that triggered the phone call, not the negative balance. A $4 purchase at a local coffee shop that resulted in hundreds of dollars in fees is part of the bank's business model. A $300 purchase for tickets to a Canadian amusement park that my daughter couldn't possibly have made, is a threat to the bank's business model. The latter event triggered a phone call from the bank; the former event did not concern them. The bank had no moral qualms about appropriating my daughter's entire paycheck for a $4 coffee purchase, but acted outraged by someone taking money from the bank.

After reversing all the fraud, we still had the negative balanced caused by the fees associated with the legitimate purchases. I managed to negotiate reversals for all but the first overdraft fee. That restored her account balance to a positive number and eliminated the daily $10 charges.

However, I found agreeing to even one overdraft fee a distasteful compromise given that my daughter never agreed to overdraft protection in the first place. In fact, not only do banks provide an expensive service that is not always wanted, but they also deceive customers further by re-ordering transactions to maximize fees. Suppose you went shopping with $100 in your account and made purchases of $4, $6, $8, and $102 in that order. You might think that the $102 purchase at the end would trigger a $35 overdraft fee because you had a large enough balance to cover the first three purchases. But, at the end of the day the bank would assess $140 in fees by re-ordering the purchases. It would process the largest purchase first as an overdraft, followed by the other three small purchases all as overdrafts.

These practices might be changing because Congress is debating new legislation that would require banks to get your permission before setting up your account with expensive overdraft protection. Consumers are also fighting back. Eileen Ambrose reported in The Baltimore Sun that Maxine Given of Baltimore County, sued M&T Bank, claiming the bank's overdraft program violates Maryland's consumer protection laws. And, as Bob Sullivan reported in his Red Tape Chronicles, consumers are leveraging the power of social media online to publicly embarrass and shame the shady practices of many banks. Let's hope Congress gets the message and enacts meaningful consumer protections.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Public Option for Healthcare: Logical Flaws in the Argument Against

I am mystified by the arguments presented by opponents of the “public option” for health insurance. Their line of reasoning has a rather obvious logical flaw. The gist of the argument against the public option is that it would lead to a government take over of the entire health care system because private insurers couldn’t compete with the government. Opponents of the public option say that would be a bad outcome because government-run-health care would not be able to provide the kind of health care services people want and need. Their underlying assumption is that any health care plan run by the government would be an inferior product compared to private health insurance.

But, that assumption is the source of the logical flaw. Since when is it a competitive advantage to offer an inferior undesirable product? If public health care were really as bad as opponents claim, why would anyone choose it? It seems that the real fear opponents of the public option have is that many people might find it an attractive choice. But, if it’s an attractive choice, why is that a problem?

Actually the market place is full of examples where private, for-profit companies compete successfully against government-run or non-profit entities.

My job at a private college is not threatened by the existence of cheaper public schools.

Rural electric cooperatives are not a threat to for-profit electric companies because those companies do not find it profitable to serve the rural market.

Package delivery services provided by private companies such as UPS and FedEx compete successfully against the “public option” of the U. S. Postal Service.

The existence of member-run credit unions did not put private banks out of business.

In fact the banks managed to fail by themselves; no outside competition was needed. That fact calls into question the entire assumption that privately-owned equals competent and efficient while government-run equals inept and wasteful. To borrow the title of a recent book on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, “a colossal failure of common sense ” permeates the management of many privately run companies.

No organization, public or private, is immune from ineptness and mismanagement. But, if I worked for an organization that I perceived as incompetent, I would work to fix the problems or find another job. I would not contribute to the problems just to prove my point that the organization is dysfunctional. Unfortunately, many members of Congress work for the government solely to prove that government doesn't work.

Actually, private and non-profit health insurers already compete head-to-head in the marketplace. My health plan through my employer is with a non-profit company. Its existence hasn’t put the private for-profit health insurers in my state out of business. I fail to see how public health insurance for people not currently served can be a threat to the existing private insurance system.

No one has suggested that private insurance and private health care be outlawed. This being America, I have no doubt that those who have the jobs and income that provide adequate health care will continue to receive the kind of care to which they are accustomed. The issue is how do we as a nation provide care for the tens of millions of fellow citizens who are not served by the current system. Many of the uninsured have zero options available. Every other developed nation in the Western world takes care of its citizens. How can the richest nation of them all, claim it cannot afford to?

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy