In the news

WISPIRG Foundation
Wisconsin State Journal
Judy Newman

Free checking can still be found at financial institutions in Wisconsin and nationwide, but consumers are more likely to see it at smaller banks and at credit unions than at some of the biggest banks, according to a survey by Public Interest Research Groups around the country.

The report, released Thursday, also showed that not every bank is forthcoming with its fee schedule, but Wisconsin banks and credit unions are more open with the information than those nationwide, overall.

• In Wisconsin, 68 percent of the 26 financial institutions provided fee schedules on the first request. After two or more requests, 88 percent complied.

• Nationwide, 48 percent of the 250 bank branches visited turned over fee schedules when first asked, and 72 percent eventually complied.

• Twelve percent, nationwide, refused to give a list of fees or told researchers to look online, including a PNC Bank branch in West Allis and a Tri City National Bank branch in Wauwatosa. Another 16 percent gave only partial information.

• Seven of 16 banks and six of 10 credit unions in Wisconsin offered free checking. The other nine banks offered free checking with direct deposit. Specifics on free checking at the Wisconsin credit unions surveyed was not included in the report.

"It's good news and bad news for consumers," said Bruce Speight, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, or WISPIRG. "More than a quarter of the banks we surveyed, on first request, did not provide a fee schedule. It is how consumers can go apples-to-apples and shop around for the best deal."

It is also a law that banks are required to provide the information, Speight said.

Michael Semmenn, vice president of government relations for the Wisconsin Bankers Association, said he thinks most banks "do a very good job" of complying with the rules. "I think banks are very conscious of Truth in Savings regulations when talking to customers," he said.

The good news, Speight said, is that free checking is still widely available, and fewer banks are charging their customers fees for using an automatic teller machine that belongs to a different bank.

The survey showed four of the 16 Wisconsin banks do not charge a fee for using another bank's ATM while the others charged anywhere from $1 to $2.50 for the service.

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