Last word on Chase Bank’s $5 ATM fee?

Hand inserting card in ATM machine

There's a great scene in the classic 1976 film thriller, "Marathon Man" in which the Nazi bad guy, played by Laurence Olivier, tests the resolve of the good guy, played by Dustin Hoffman, with the aid of some very nasty dental instruments.

Residents of Texas and Illinois who occasionally use out-of-network Chase ATMs might not have felt Hoffman's pain exactly, but for two months they've been probed just the same by Chase to see if they'd mind (or notice) being charged an extra dollar or two for its ATM service.

The probing stopped last week as Chase announced it was ending its pilot program, which during February and March had bumped non-customer ATM fees from $3 to $4 in Texas and $3 to $5 in Illinois.

The bank reverted to its standard $3 fees in the test states but remained noncommital on the results of its study, or whether the higher fees might return in these or other states in the near future.

The Chase pilot represents an interesting wrinkle in big banking's campaign to recover some of the fee gravy it lost to financial reform. While most bigs have focused on bumping checking account fees to new and existing customers, Chase was testing the pain threshold of non-customers who occasionally use its 16,000 ATMs nationwide, about 3,600 of which were located in the pilot states.

The money question here is how to explain a two-month probe.

Did Chase plan on a 60-day pilot intentionally, perhaps figuring to limit consumer outrage to two billing cycles? Was there sufficient consumer pushback early on to convince them to drop the idea? Or was the bank sufficiently satisfied by the results to move ahead with planning for a regional, national or targeted rollout?

Any of these scenarios could have happened, but I'd place my bills on the latter for three reasons.

First, ATM fees are on the rise in general; HSBC Bank popped its fees to non-customers to $3 in March and TD Bank imposed a $2 fee on its own standard customers who use out-of-network ATMs.

Second, there's little risk of customer attrition by charging an ATM fee to non-customers; in fact, shareholders may love the idea.

And finally, Chase is Chase. If you're a Chase customer like I am, you know what I'm talking about. I'll let you know when my bank lowers a fee without a gun to its head.

Prediction: It's going to become more expensive for non-customers to use Chase ATMs in the near future.

And don't expect any Novocain.

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