Banks are under no legal obligation to do business with people who have been financially irresponsible. Even so, the common practice of blacklisting customers who have made minor financial missteps and denying them access to basic banking is an abuse that hurts the economy, young adults and poor neighborhoods. It's up to consumer advocates and state regulators to push banks to adopt fairer rules.
Placement on a blacklist for bouncing checks or overdrawing on an account can last five years. That is a long time for people to have no access traditional banking and few options aside from expensive check cashing services and high-fee prepaid cards. The New York attorney general reached an agreement with Capital One last month to expand access to banking for customers who appear on the blacklist. Other banks should follow suit. Banks should not use vetting systems to shut out legitimate customers who deserve a second chance.
Some of the nation's largest banks and credit unions use ChexSystems, a national credit bureau that screens applicants who apply for checking or savings accounts. The database and others like it are designed to flag serial bad check writers and potentially fraudulent activity. But in addition to rooting out bad players, the system has tagged victims of identity theft, low-income people, students and young professionals who are just learning how to become financially independent. They include a 25-year-old who bounced checks in college but later repaid her bank, and a 36-year-old who makes six figures a year but cannot get a bank account because of past troubles.
More than a million Americans are blacklisted, according to the New York Times. New York has reached out to six banks, including Bank of America, Capital One and JPMorgan, and expressed concern that they might be "improperly denying or otherwise restricting banking access to New York consumers." But the problem is nationwide. New York's attorney general said Capital One has agreed to roll back some of its practices and pledged to stop trying to predict if applicants pose a credit risk for basic banking.
Financial institutions should not take advantage of consumers with brief financial troubles, especially when those people have repaid their debts. Banks should work with customers who have received what amounts to a financial scarlet letter for minor mismanagement. Providing credit counseling and creating products targeted at young and low-income earners are good places to start.
Consumers who want to do business with banks have a responsibility to carefully manage their money and seek help if they foresee trouble. Parents, schools and credit counselors also can play a role by ensuring that young people understand basic financial literacy. While balancing a checkbook may seem obsolete for today's consumers who rely on debit cards and ATMs, the ability to accurately track spending and income and understand interest rates remain important skills. Federal law allows consumers to receive a free copy of their credit report annually. The same is true for databases that record checking and savings account histories. Consumers should make acquiring both documents a part of their annual financial checkup.