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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Federal agency finds that debit card purchases of less than $24 produce large overdraft fees

WASHINGTON - The fees that banks charge debit-card users who overdraw their accounts usually cost more than the items being bought.

That's the result of a study that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released Thursday.

Large banks have generally charged a $34 penalty when people overdraw their debit-card accounts, even though most of the purchases involved were for less than $24. And the penalties are charged even though most accounts return to a positive balance within three days, the study found. Banks profit by collecting more than half their checking account income from these fees.

The study builds on a 2013 report that found that heavy overdrafters, on average, face $900 in additional costs each year.

"Overdraft fees should not be 'gotchas' when people use their debit cards," CFPB director Richard Cordray said in a conference call with reporters.

The CFPB is considering what protections might be necessary but has yet to outline specific policy changes that could shield bank customers from these charges. One area of concern for the CFPB is that some banks process transactions by size instead of the time of their purchase. This means the banks prioritize large expenditures such as rent or auto payments ahead of smaller purchases, possibly draining accounts such that buying a cup of coffee can trigger an overdraft fee.

The study found that 75 per cent of all overdraft fees come from just 8 per cent of bank customers. Younger Americans who frequently use debt cards are more likely to be charged fees. More than 10 per cent of accounts belonging to 18- to 25-year-olds are hit with at least 10 overdraft fees a year. Nearly 36 per cent of accounts belonging to 26- to 45-year-olds face at least one fee.

Not surprisingly, the fees weigh mainly on people who use their debit cards more often. Nearly half of bank customers with more than 30 debit transactions each month will pay one or more fees each year.

Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, said in a statement that overdraft protection and the resulting fees are optional. Consumers can instead choose to have their transactions denied if they exhaust their accounts.

"We believe overdraft protection is a vital banking service voluntarily chosen by consumers to ensure their financial needs are met," Hunt said.

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