Did you know that free checking works by exploiting the everyday cash shortages of the poorest in our country? There is a company that dresses it up and sells it to banks.
I recently moved to Durham from Boston, and as it goes I had to set up new accounts to establish services for my loft. Part of this task involved deciding on a bank to take my deposits and facilitate payments. I set up a simple matrix to help me decide on a bank that included two simple categories: proximity and fees. There were plenty of banks within a reasonable distance to me, but where my matrix failed was in the fee category.
Apparently, “free” checking accounts are now ubiquitous. Sounds good, right? Not for me. I work in behavioral economics. Free checking looks to me like Winnie the Pooh walking out of a XXX movie theater. In other words, innocence doesn’t have sweat on its sneaky brow. There is no such thing as free, it’s just hiding. Cost can be intangible, but this is not the case with free checking. So, who pays for free checking for all of us? Consumers with illiquidity issues, and these are the people who need their money the most. There cannot be a worse target. What used to be called a penalty fee for overdrafting an account is now called a convenience fee or value added service. How appealing. These fees add up and happen frequently enough to offer free checking.
I had to ask, from whom are all of these banks getting this bright idea? I found that banks of all sizes offer free checking, so this tells me that there must be a third party facilitator. I searched for B2B bank products under the granddaddy of all bank facilitators, Fiserv, and smiling at me like Miss America with AIDS was none other than Carreker.
Carreker calls it Revenue Enhancement and it is a very attractive service for any bank that puts money before fairness to consumers. Carreker enables a bank to collect on penalty fees and clear transactions in real time, which is how Carreker can boast that the bank will see immediate results. It is not because they have done something truly beneficial for the customer. Most of all, Carreker actually controls the overdraft decisions. They have their hand on the penalty revenue throttle. As a customer’s account goes negative, they can allow the customer to overdraft not once but for several transactions, thus incurring high fees. Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Carreker Revenue Enhancement, Jeff Burton, claims that the “fee income market is fine” provided that you [the bank] position yourself with Carreker to share in the wealth.
Aggressive revenue seeking has changed the manner of normal operations into more of a production model. Banks now call overdraft penalties by a new name: exception revenue. Furthermore, they want you to see it as if they are doing you a favor and that it is okay, in fact perfectly fine as you now know, if you need to overdraft your account. The negative connotation has been replaced by the notion that your bank is forgiving and would never prevent you from making that gratifying purchase. It is not right to allow customers to pay an average of 9 X $30 if they miscalculate their account balance. Alas, Carreker does not stop with their exception revenue system.
Burton states that they have gone as far as to create a special framework for one of their clients to allow them to profit from payday loans. This is what they call their approach to increase overall revenue and customer utilization. I’m not sure about you, but I am not here to be “utilized.” Carreker will continue to innovate new ways to capitalize on the hardships of consumers. Most frighteningly, they are not just an idea firm because they actually provide the framework, algorithms, and integration to allow the bank to carry on these evil deeds.
For what’s it’s worth, I changed my decision matrix to seek a bank that had all around low fees, so I can avoid living off of the money of people who desperately need it. I’m still looking.