Increasingly, banks are finding ways to impose bigger and trickier fees on account holders.

Some of the sneakiest fees now and ways you can avoid them…

ATM FEES

  • ATMs allowing customers to overdraw their accounts. Request cash from your bank’s ATM, and you will almost certainly receive it — even if there is not enough money in your account to cover the withdrawal. Banks could easily program their ATMs to decline such transactions or to warn you that such a transaction will trigger a hefty overdraft fee, but that would mean a loss of extra fees for the banks.
  • Self-defense: Check your balance before making the withdrawal if you are not certain there is enough money in your account.

  • Double ATM fees. Last year, Bank of America increased its ATM fee for non-account holders from $2 to $3, and other banks are likely to follow suit. ATMs warn customers of this type of charge, but many ATM users do not realize that their own banks often charge an additional fee of between $1 and $2.50 for using an ATM that belongs to another bank chain. That means the total fee for an out-of-network ATM transaction can top $5.
  • Self-defense: Use only your own bank’s ATMs.

    CHECK FEES

  • Clearing the biggest checks first to maximize overdraft penalties. Most banks charge a fee of $30 to $40 each time an account holder bounces a check. (Any merchant who received your bad check might charge you a penalty as well.) In addition, many banks now follow a practice that often automatically increases the number of checks that their customers bounce. They do this by first deducting from your account the largest check amounts when processing a batch of your checks.
  • The banks claim they do this because large checks tend to be the most important, but consumer advocates contend that it is just a way to maximize fees. Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC, Wells Fargo and many other banks engage in the practice.

    Example: Five checks you wrote reach your bank on a given day — four checks for small items followed by a $1,600 mortgage payment. If there is only $1,500 in your account, only the final check — the big mortgage payment — should bounce. Instead, your bank processes the large mortgage payment first, which means that all five checks will bounce. Rather than a $30 or $40 overdraft fee and one upset check recipient, you now face $150 to $200 in overdraft fees and five perturbed check recipients.

    Self-defense: Avoid writing many checks or making several debit card purchases in a short period if you are not 100% certain that there will be enough money in your account to cover all of them.

  • Fees for someone else’s bounced check. A penalty when you bounce a check is one thing — but many banks now charge a fee of $5 to $10 to the recipient of a bad check as well.
  • Self-defense: Do not accept checks as payment unless you are confident that you can trust the payer.

    ACCOUNT FEES

  • Dormancy fees. Some banks charge a fee of several dollars per month to keep an “inactive” or “dormant” account open. Banks have different criteria for what they consider a dormant account, so be sure to ask your bank about its rules.
  • Self-defense: Close any unnecessary accounts.

  • Account closing fees. Your bank might charge you a fee of $5 or more if you close an account within six to 12 months of opening it. These fees are particularly common at bank branches located in college towns, because banks know that students often close accounts at the end of each semester or school year. Example: KeyBank charges an early closure fee of $25 when “Express Checking” accounts are closed within 180 days of being opened.
  • Self-defense: Ask about account closing fees before you open the account. Don’t open an account at a bank that charges such a fee if you expect to leave the region or close the account for another reason anytime soon.

  • Gift card fees. Banks sell gift cards similar to those offered by retailers. They can be used just as you would use a bank-issued debit or credit card. Unlike retailer gift cards, however, bank gift cards often carry account fees of as much as $2 or $3 per month. If the recipient does not spend the money quickly, a significant portion of it might gradually disappear.
  • Self-defense: Give cash or a check — or a retailer gift card — rather than a bank gift card.

    TRANSACTION FEES

  • Teller and phone fees. Some banks now charge $1 to $5 or more every time an account holder interacts with a teller or customer service representative in person or on the phone (or every time the account holder exceeds a preset monthly teller transaction limit). At some banks, this charge applies even when customers call the bank but interact only with the automated system. Customers are not told that they are being charged a fee at the time of the transaction, and they often are unaware of the rules.
  • Some banks even charge a fee for certain ATM services, such as requesting a “mini-statement” that summarizes recent transactions.

    Self-defense: Ask your bank if your account has a limit on the number of free teller visits or calls. If it does, do as much banking as possible through ATMs or on-line.

    Ask to have any teller or phone fee waived when your call or visit is about a bank error, involves opening an account or is because the bank’s ATM is out of service. You also may avoid these fees if you maintain a certain balance in some accounts.

  • PIN fees. Some banks now charge a fee of 25 cents to $1.50 each time a customer uses a personal identification number (PIN) for a debit card transaction at a retailer. Debit card users typically can choose to either sign for purchases or type in their PINs.
  • Banks impose PIN fees to encourage customers to sign for purchases, because banks can charge retailers higher fees when they do. Trouble is, many cardholders don’t even know that PIN fees exist.

    Self-defense: Try to use credit cards rather than a debit card. If you do use a debit card, check whether your bank imposes a fee when you enter a PIN. Consider switching banks if it does.

    HOW TO AVOID FEES

    Many bank customers learn that fees exist only when charges appear on their account statements — if they bother to read their statements at all. Banks are required to give new customers a “Truth in Savings Disclosure” statement detailing all of their fees and to notify customers in writing when policies change, but few customers read the fine print of bank literature. All bank customers should request a copy of the fee-disclosure statement for their accounts.

    Banks once waived fees upon request for good customers, but this is less common now. At many banks, low-level employees no longer even have the right to waive fees, and the managers who do are increasingly unwilling to be lenient — though it is still worth asking to have questionable fees waived when they appear on your statement.

    Credit unions tend to impose the fewest and lowest fees, followed by local community banks. Large bank chains typically have the greatest number of big fees — though they also have extensive ATM networks, which can at least help customers avoid paying out-of-network ATM fees.