You have no idea how much your checking account costs

Portion of a check

Get out your magnifying glass — the fine print for your checking account is probably filled with fees.

Big banks are charging more for basic checking functions, often without directly informing us, according to a new study from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which examined data from the 12 largest banks and 12 largest credit unions.

According to Pew, a dozen major banks have shown little improvement toward transparency since the nonprofit first reported on the issue in April 2011.

Long disclosure statements are a prime example, often obscuring common information about policies and fees.

The report notes that the median length of bank disclosure statements is still at an overwhelming 69 pages.

For credit unions, the Pew researchers say, the median length is a shorter 31 pages, but the statements often don't include information that would allow a customer to compare account fees, terms and conditions.

In some cases, banks and credit unions didn't even disclose details online.

That allows institutions to get by with charging a number of unreasonable fees, especially for account overdrafts.

While median overdraft charges remained unchanged from the last report — $35 for banks and $25 for credit unions — overdraft transfer and extended overdraft penalty fees have increased, Pew says.

Banks and credit unions also have tricks to maximize overdrafts, like crediting transactions from highest to lowest rather than chronologically.

This is a quick, devious way to steal more of your money.

Say, for example, you have $100 left in your account and start your day by swiping your debit card to buy a $3 cup of coffee, then $6 for lunch, then $97 for groceries in the evening.

If the transactions were credited chronologically and properly, you'd get dinged for just one overdraft charge — on the grocery bill. Instead, banks regularly reorder the transaction, putting the largest charge first.

In this case, you'd be stuck with two overdraft charges.

"All 12 banks either already reorder withdrawals from highest to lowest dollar amount or reserve the right to do so without notice to the customer, thus maximizing overdraft fees," Pew notes (

What's somewhat surprising is that credit unions, often a safe haven from high fees, aren't really that much better than big banks.

Of the 12 credit unions, seven reserved the right to reorder withdrawals from highest to lowest dollar amount, the study notes.

The only appropriate response that can give you any sense of protection is to opt out of overdraft protection. The worst consequence is your transaction will be denied at the register if you don’t have enough cash in your account. But you won't get charged an overdraft fee.

Pew focuses on the 12 most common checking account fees, but also reports that banks charged a median of 26 additional service fees, while credit unions charged 18.

That includes fees for "empty envelope," "bad address" and "rejected offline ATM transactions."

These practices are going to continue until some government player — like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — gets involved. That's just what Pew smartly recommends.

It wants the government to limit overdraft fees, ban transaction reordering and demand a streamlined account disclosure process so anyone can easily compare terms, conditions and fees.

Unless and until that happens, we're all on our own to make sure the banks and credit unions don't take advantage of us.

I know I'll be examining my account statements a little closer. How about you?

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